November 12, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Minister abuses authority to go after privately-owned daily

Reporters Without Borders worries that Gabon’s new communication minister, Alain-Claude Bilie By Nzé, is acting arbitrarily and exceeding his powers when he announced last week that the daily La Loupe would be prosecuted and would be referred to the National Council for Communication (CNC). The minister was reacting to an article that La Loupe published on 3 November reporting the conclusions of an August 2015 government report on illegal immigration, and an editorial in the same issue voicing concern about governance problems in Gabon and suggesting use of arms as a possible remedy. Claiming that the newspaper's content endangered national security, the minister announced in a communiqué the next day in the government newspaper L'Union that they would be referred to the CNC and that La Loupe would be prosecuted for “disturbing public order, inciting hatred, and calling for murder and civil disobedience.” “We do not endorse the content of the article and editorial, which were steeped in personal opinions and went beyond the limits of journalistic reporting,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk. “But we are concerned about the prerogatives being assumed by the new communication minister. They suggest that it is the newspaper itself and the dissident views it expresses, rather than a lack of journalistic rigor, that are being punished.” The new minister’s use of a series of shortcuts also raises doubts about the government’s good faith. The communiqué signed by the minister treated the article about clandestine immigration and the editorial about governance issues as a single article, and portrayed their vehement content as more violent than it actually was. Furthermore, it is not the government’s job to tell the CNC or the judicial system what cases they should take up. La Loupe’s publisher has not yet been notified by either the CNC or the courts of any proceedings. The minister’s communiqué seems above all designed to intimidate anyone closely or remotely associated with the newspaper. The day after the communiqué, the company that prints La Loupe and its distributor both announced that they were suspending their cooperation with the newspaper for “precautionary” reasons. Finally, the provisions cited by the minister in his communiqué as grounds for prosecution are contained in this year’s Ordinance 18/PR/2015, which replaced the 2001 Code of Communication and which is the outcome of a drafting process that the government began two years ago. Under Gabon’s constitution, legislating by means of an ordinance instead of a law voted by parliament is restricted to emergencies. So the government’s use of an ordinance raises serious doubts about its declared desire to act transparently. Previously targeted La Loupe’s premises, which it shares with L'Aube, another newspaper also owned by Alphonse Ongouo, was broken into on the night of 29 October and all of its computers and several important documents were stolen. It was not the first time that Ongouo’s newspapers have been the targets of mysterious attacks. In September 2014, the issue that La Loupe sent to the printer with front-page stories critical of the government was inexplicably substituted at the last minute and a bogus issue came off the presses. Promoted from presidential spokesman to communication minister at the start of last month, Alain Billie By Nzé has inherited a difficult portfolio. Its challenges include the viability of Africa N°1 TV station and Gabon Matin newspaper, which has not appeared since 23 October. He already seems to have antagonized the journalistic community, which has accused him of meddling in state TV programming and trying to “regulate media freedom”. Gabon is ranked 95th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.