Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the array of restrictions that the Gabonese authorities have imposed on journalists in the run-up to the 30 August presidential election. Communications minister Laure Olga Gondjout today nonetheless tried to defuse tension and concerns by spelling out the rules for journalists on voting day.
The election is to choose a successor to President Omar Bongo Ondimba, who died in June after 41 years in power.
“What with restricted media access to polling stations, harsh warnings, intimidation and refusal to issue some foreign media with accreditation, the government is using all available means to keep news and information under tight control,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It should understand that such behaviour will just fuel concern that the elections will not be free and fair.”
The press freedom organisation added: “We take note of the communication minister’s promises and we hope that journalists are able to work freely and without impediment on Sunday. If they are not, it will cast a long shadow on what should be an historic election.”
Media not welcome in polling stations
In a communiqué drawn up at a cabinet meeting and in news conferences held by interior minister Jean-François Ndongou and National Communications Council chairman Emmanuel Ondo Methogo, the government announced yesterday that journalists would only be able to make “brief” visits to voting stations when public figures were casting their ballots, and would not be allowed to “stay there permanently.”
The authorities also announced that: “Only the state media will be allowed to officially communicate the results on the basis of data provided by the interior minister." The vote counting will be public but journalists will only be able to attend by staying outside the voting stations. Elections results will not be posted.
A foreign journalist told Reporters Without Borders: “We have been notified that any comment on the results that does not come from the interior ministry will be regarded a projection or a poll, and will automatically result in our being deported from Gabon.”
The Gabonese Media Observatory (OGAM), a self-regulatory entity formed by all the leading Gabonese media, condemned the government’s “iniquitous” decisions and accused the authorities of “flouting press freedom and gagging the people’s right to information.”
Hand-picked foreign journalists
Journalists Virginie Herz and Nicolas Germain of the French 24-hour news channel France 24, Gervais Nitcheu of the TV news agency AITV/RFO and Vincent Hugeux of the French weekly L'Express will not be able to cover the election because their requests for accreditation have been turned down.
“This is a sovereign decision that we do not have to explain,” Gondjout, the communication minister, told L'Express editor Christophe Barbier. In a blog entry on Nomades Express , Hugeux said he thought his application was rejected because an ironic report he wrote about the late President Bongo’s election campaign in November 2005 “did not find favour in high places.”
Poisonous climate and partisan press
The climate in the run-up to the election is widely regarded as worrying. Reporters Without Borders was separately told by several sources which it prefers not to identify that intimidation and telephone threats are common.
The campaign of former minister André Mba Obame, who is running as an independent candidate, reported on 23 August that its website had been blocked by hackers for 48 hours. Distribution of the fortnightly Tango was banned on the orders of the communications ministry chief of staff at the start of August because of a series of articles critical of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG).
Reporters Without Borders regards the ban not only as violation of free expression but also as an abuse of authority as, in Gabon, only the National Communications Council is empowered to issue warnings to publications or suspend them.
Reporters Without Borders added: “While journalists are above all victims of restrictions imposed by the authorities, the Gabonese media’s behaviour is not always beyond reproach. Journalists, especially those working for privately-owned media, often let themselves be used as the mouthpieces of particular candidates, to the detriment of impartial and independent reporting. We remind journalists of their duty to be objective and respect professional ethics.”