Dubbed the “AXE” by Gabon’s journalists because of its propensity for “executing” media outlets by closing them down, the HAC lived up to its reputation again on 20 June by ordering the newspaper Fraternité to stop publishing for a month because of a 13 June article headlined “Who runs Gabon?” that questioned President Ali Bongo’s ability to govern since a stroke last October.
Claiming that the article contained “malicious, defamatory, insulting and mendacious insinuations” causing “harm to the president’s honour and dignity,” the HAC also demanded the immediate removal of the offending issue from newsstands and other points of sale. Fraternité told RSF it intended to appeal to the HAC against this decision and might refer the matter to the courts.
“Since it started operating a year ago the HAC has ordered a dozen arbitrary suspensions, preventing various media outlets from publishing or broadcasting for a combined total of 28 months,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “This is a disastrous record. This regulator is clearly being used to defend the regime’s interests and inflict punishments on the media instead of fulfilling its most important mission: to defend press freedom. Only a complete overhaul of its functioning and composition would allow journalists the freedom to speak their minds and serve the public interest by covering all subjects, even the most politically sensitive ones.”
Created by government decree on 23 February 2018 to replace the National Council for Communication (CNC), the HAC is a supposedly independent government offshoot but seven of its nine members are appointed by the ruling authorities, and it inflicts almost systematic sanctions on media outlets that criticize the president or his close associates.
In November 2018, the daily newspaper L’Aube was suspended for three months for referring to the president’s health. Five months later, in April 2019, it was suspended again, this time for six months, for publishing a spoof interview with President Bongo’s former chief of staff as an April Fool’s joke, and for an interview with Désiré Enamé, the editor of Echos du Nord, a newspaper that has also been suspended several times, in which he condemned the “extraordinary persecution of targeted newspapers.”
Gabon is ranked 115th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index, seven places lower than in 2018.