At the HAC’s behest, the 7,000 copies of Moutouki’s 16 January issue were removed from the newsstands the next day because of an article headlined “The Little Prince Consort,” reporting that the president’s son, Noureddin Bongo Valentin, who was recently named presidential affairs coordinator, is the target of several civil society complaints accusing him of misusing public funds and money-laundering.
The HAC intervened on its own initiative on the grounds that the article allegedly contained “malicious, suspicious and tendentious” insinuations that constituted “persecution, calumny and insult.” Describing the article as “prejudicial to the honour and dignity” of the president’s son, a HAC statement added that journalists must always “ensure that the information they publish is fair and accurate, and must avoid comments and speculation.”
It should be noted the HAC went ahead with the confiscation without questioning the newspaper’s editor, who was therefore giving no chance to defend the accuracy of the facts reported in the article.
“The HAC has begun the new year as it ended the last one, systematically sanctioning media that criticize the government,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Compounding the arbitrary nature of this decision, the HAC did not even trouble to question the journalist or inform him of its observations, although it can do this. This politically motivated sanction, imposed with the sole aim of protecting the presidential family’s interests, is far from conforming to the duties of an independent media regulator.”
Ever since its creation, the HAC – dubbed “The Axe” by some Gabonese journalists – has pursued an extremely hostile policy towards government critics and has arbitrarily ordered many temporary media closures.
Newspapers owned by Moutouki’s owners, the Oloumambe press group, have already been suspended seven times for a combined total of 18 months. Because of these disproportionate sanctions, RSF has repeatedly called for an overhaul of the HAC, which is supposed to guarantee press freedom, not gag it.
Gabon is ranked 115th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.