Gabon suspends two newspapers over defamation claims

APA-Libreville (Gabon)

Two newspapers in Gabon have been suspended by the country's media regulator over defamation claims.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in a statement on Friday called on Gabon's media regulator to immediately lift its suspensions of the tri-weekly newspaper L'Aube and the weekly Echos du Nord, and give journalists the freedom to cover issues of public interest, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 20, the High Authority for Communication, Gabon's media regulator, ordered Echos du Nord to  suspend publication for four months following a defamation complaint by  the president of Gabon's constitutional court, Marie-Madeleine  Mborantsuo, according to reports.

On April 10, the authority issued an order suspending L'Aube's  publication for six months for the alleged defamation of Maixent  Accrombessi, the former chief of staff to Gabonese President Ali Bongo,  according to Melissa Bendome, a technical adviser at the authority, who  spoke to CPJ over messaging app.

CPJ  spoke with Liliane Bilogho Ndong Nang, director of government  information at the prime minister's office, in an attempt to reach  Accrombessi and Mborantsuo for comment, but Bilogho declined to give  their contact information.

"The suspensions of the L'Aube and Echos du Nord newspapers  by Gabon's media regulator send a chilling signal to all journalists  that anything deemed undesirable by powerful people in the country may  be grounds for complete censorship," Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa  program coordinator, said from Durban. "Journalists must be free to  deliver information to the public in whatever form they see fit, without  fear."

The Echos du Nord suspension  order followed the paper's February 4 publication of an article about  Mborantsuo's increasing power in the country, according to the news  website Gabon Review. Mborantsuo  filed a complaint with the High Authority for Communication, and the  regulator called the article "slanderous," "vindictive," and  "outrageously acrimonious," according to the Review.

Echos du Nord's weekly print publication has been suspended since March 20, according to news reports. Its website has not been updated since 2017.

L'Aube Editor-in-Chief  Orca Boudiandza Mouellé told CPJ via phone on May 7 that, while the  newspaper did cease publication on April 10 after the regulator's  decision was announced on Gabonese TV, they have yet to receive a formal  notification of the suspension. The newspaper does not have a website,  Mouellé told CPJ.

Accrombessi's lawyer filed a complaint with the media regulator after L'Aubepublished  a satirical text on April 1 as a joke, in which a caricatured  Accrombessi spoke about looting Gabon and manipulating the president,  according to Mouellé and media reports.

On April 8, L'Aube published a clarification, explaining that the April 1 article was published as satire, as seen in an image of the newspaper featured by online broadcaster Benin Web TV.

The High Authority for Communication's suspension order also referenced an interview by L'Aube with Echos du Nord founder Désiré Ename, published on March 25, following Echos du Nord's suspension, in which Ename referred to the regulator with "pejorative and sarcastic expressions," according to French daily Le Figaro.

In  2016, Echos du Nord's  offices were raided by Gabon's domestic intelligence agency, several of  its staffers were arrested, and one was allegedly tortured during an  interrogation, as CPJ reported at the time.

L'Aube was  previously suspended for three months beginning in November 2018 after  it published an article about Bongo's allegedly poor healt, according to  the U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America.

CPJ  called Tiburce Armand Nziengui Boussougou, adviser to the director of  government information, who answered but declined to comment on the  state of press freedom in Gabon.

Earlier  this year, Gabon's government shut down the internet and broadcasting  services throughout the country following a coup attempt against Bongo,  as CPJ reported at the time.


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