- As Gabon's 2005 presidential polls are approaching, the country's privately-owned media are noting an increased pressure. A crackdown on private media with several temporal closures started early this year while a state commission is to decide on who may practice as a journalist. Meanwhile, a Libreville journalist is being detained in a peculiar libel case.
Alfred Ngamba, a journalist with the privately-owned newspaper 'Le Nganga' has been detained in a Libreville prison since Monday after being charged with libelling a medical doctor in an article he wrote for the paper. The unidentified doctor in the strange libel case is also director of a well-known Libreville-based non-governmental organisation.
The Kinshasa-based group Journaliste en danger (JED) spoke with the newspaper's staff, who explained that 'Le Nganga' had published Mr Ngamba's story about a rival of the doctor who damaged the doctor's vehicle. According to the paper's editorial staff, the incident is well-known in Libreville and the matter is currently before the courts. "We cannot understand the motive behind this legal action that has resulted in our colleague's incarceration," the director of 'Le Nganga' said.
The 'Le Nganga' staff and JED see the peculiar detention of Mr Ngamba as yet another case where the few remaining independent media in Gabon are attacked by the government and the judiciary. 'Le Nganga' had managed to stay out of government focus since the last round of press intimidation in Gabon in 2001-02, when the weekly received warnings of a possible closure for having criticised the Prime Minister in an article.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Gabon's ruling Democratic Party controls all state institutions, including the judiciary, law enforcement and the official National Communications Council (CNC), a state institution allegedly mandated to promote press freedom and ensure quality journalism.
The Council, according to the media watchdog, repeatedly uses its wide-ranging powers to control the independent press. Ahead of Gabon's last presidential elections, CPJ says, the Council launched a "crackdown on private media." As the 2005 presidential poll approaches, this may be in the process of happening again, Gabonese media now fear.
The signs are many that this is already happening. During the last few months, the bi-monthly newspaper 'Misamu' - Gabon's leading independent print media - together with the satirical journals 'Sub-Version' and 'La Sagaie' have been suspended for an undefined period by the CNC.
Since December last year, the 'Autre Journal' has been suspended after its second edition had been seized by the Council. The 'Autre Journal' is owned by the opposition politician Zacharie Myboto, who may be a candidate for the 2005 presidential poll.
The regime of President Omar Bongo however seems to be willing to go further in controlling the Gabonese press ahead of the elections. A national commission on press professionalism, the CNCPP, has been created to better control who is practising as journalist. The Commission is set to be given the powers to decide who is a true and who is a false journalist - with the official aim of increasing the professionalism of the trade.
The Gabonese Association of Professionals in the Free Press (APPEL) holds that the true motive of the new Commission is to harm privately-owned media. In recent comments to the French news agency AFP, APPEL Secretary-General Yves Ntoutoume said the new Commission only aims at "complicating the life of the private press."
Mr Ntoutoume added that he could not imagine the Commission to refuse any journalist from state-owned media to practice their profession. Regarding journalists in privately-owned media however, the Commission would find it easier denying them an official status as professionals, thereby denying journalists access to government information and spokespersons.
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