Several media outlets and journalist's accreditation suspended
President Ali Bongo's state of health was the object of much speculation after the president suffered a stroke in October 2018 and was abroad for several months for medical treatment. To accommodate the long absence of Gabon's head of state, the Constitutional Court modified the constitution on 14th November 2018 to allow the vice president or the prime minister to carry out certain functions when the president is 'temporarily unavailable', a move heavily criticised by opposition and civil society actors. The modification allows President Bongo to stay in power, as the constitution mandates the holding of elections within 30 to 60 days after a 'vacancy of power in the presidency' is declared by the Constitutional Court. A group named 'Appel à Agir' (Call to Act), consisting of ten leading members from the opposition and civil society, has called for the declaration of the vacancy of power, and have proceeded to legal action to compel a medical examination of the president in order to determine whether he is fit to rule. Any speculation on the president's ill-health - who has in the meantime returned to Gabon but public appearances remain rare - has been penalised, in particular media outlets and journalists.
Failed coup attempt 7th January 2019
A coup attempt on 7th January 2019 was quickly foiled. On that day a group of soldiers, claiming to belong to a group named the Patriotic Movement of the Defence and Security Forces of Gabon, stormed into the offices of the national radio station and broadcast a message asking the people to rise up, take control of the streets and occupy airports, public buildings and media. They further said they were 'to restore democracy' placing doubts on president Bongo's 'ability to carry out the responsibilities of his office'. Following the coup attempt, a government spokesperson said it intended to investigate civil society and opposition leaders, mentioned in the soldiers' statement, for their possible support of the coup d'état.
National media regulator HAC suspends several media outlets
On 23rd August 2019, Gabon's media regulator, the Haute Authorité de la Communication (HAC, High Authority of Communication) suspended online media outlet Gabon Review for a period of three months for 'having damaged the image of HAC by malicious insinuations'. On 1st August 2019, the HAC suspended the online news outlet Gabon Media Time (GMT) for a month. The decision to suspend was related to an article published the previous day alleging a two-year old girl was turned away from Gabon's cancer institute due to a shortage of beds, which HAC accused of being 'full of malicious, suspicious and tendentious insinuations' and violating the ethics and professional conduct of journalists.
The newspaper Fraternité was suspended for a month on 20th June 2019 by HAC on grounds of 'malicious, defamatory, insulting and mendacious insinuations' in its article 'Who governs Gabon', published on 13th June 2019 which, according to HAC is 'causing harm to the president’s honour and dignity'.
On 10th April 2019, HAC suspended the newspaper L'Aube for six months. According to media reports, the harsh sentence was handed down for several infractions of the Communication Code in two of the media outlet's articles. On 25th March 2019, L'Aube published an interview with the founder of the newspaper Échos du Nord, which was suspended by HAC a few weeks earlier (see below). HAC qualified the interview as an 'apology for insulting' HAC and its members by using 'pejorative and sarcastic expressions'. Furthermore, on 5 April 2018 the former chief of staff of President Bongo Ondimba, Maixent Accrombessi filed a complaint against the newspaper for defamation for a satirical fictitious interview published on 1st April. Later, on 8th April 2019, the newspaper claimed it concerned an April Fool's joke. As previously reported by the Monitor, L'Aube was suspended for three months in November 2018, and the newspaper's editor Orca Boudiandza Mouellé was banned from exercising his profession as a journalist for six months for having published an article on the state of President Bongo's health.
The suspension of L'Aube followed only weeks after the newspaper Échos du Nord was suspended for four months. The HAC ordered the suspension on 20th March 2019, after having received a defamation complaint by Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo, the president of the Constitutional Court of Gabon. The newspaper was suspended on several occasions - in August 2018 and June 2017 - and their offices raided in 2016.
Arnaud Froger of Reporters without Borders (RSF) said of the national media regulator:
"The HAC is a like a machine that keeps on producing sanctions, scouring the vague, imprecise and repressive laws regulating journalism in Gabon for ways to serve the government’s interests and prevent any legitimate criticism with regard to issues in the public interest."
.@yveslaugoma1 interdit de travailler au #Gabon: RSF condamne une nouvelle restriction de la liberté de la presse par l’autorité censée la garantir. Il est urgent de réformer en profondeur la Haute autorité de la communication! https://t.co/j9ITtEfLeU— RSF (@RSF_inter) August 23, 2019
Journalists banned from exercising their profession
On 22nd August 2019, HAC announced, through a statement read on national television, the suspension of the accreditation of the correspondent of Radio France International (RFI) Yves-Laurent Goma for a period of two months. HAC stated that the suspension was due to 'inaccurate information with a malicious insinuation implicating the physical integrity of the President of the Republic Ali Bongo' for having written, in an article on the ceremony celebrating Gabon's Independence Day published on 17th August 2019, that 'the President has at no time risen to salute the army troops'.
Independent Gabonese journalist Freddy Koula Moussavou, who is based in France, was banned from exercising his profession for a period of six months, through a decision of HAC on 16th July 2019. Additionally, the HAC asked national and international media in Gabon not to work with the journalist during the six-month period. In its decision, which follows a complaint from the Gabonese Football Federation, HAC said that Koula violated the rules and ethics of the profession of journalist by 'making the choice of the sensational, lie, and not of true information', relating to an article Koula published on his Facebook page quoting complaints of members of the national under-20 women's team about mistreatment, including sexual abuse, by the accompanying team during their stay in France for the Sup Ladies Cup tournament.
30 online media outlets suspended for not having complied with legal and administrative requirements
On 23rd July 2019, the national media regulator suspended 30 online media outlets for non-compliance with the Communication Code. The suspension will last until the media outlets comply with the legal and administrative requirements.
Failed coup attempt: internet shutdown and suspension of broadcasting services
Following the failed coup attempt on 7th January 2019, the internet was shut down and broadcasting services suspended. According to the digital rights CSO NetBlocks, the internet disruption started at 7AM, and connectivity was restored after 28 hours of outages.
Release blogger after 17 months in pre-trial detention
On 5th February 2019, a court in Libreville ordered the release of blogger Hervé Mombo Kinga, who spent 17 months in pre-trial detention. He was arrested on 31st August 2017 when he screened anti-government videos during an opposition protest and stood accused of 'propaganda tending to disturb public order' and 'insult of the President of the Republic'.
#Gabon Interdiction de la tenue de l'AG du syndicat Dynamique Unitaire au terrain de basket d'Awendjé. Quadrillage du quartier par les forces de l'ordre + jets de gaz lacrymogènes + arrestation des leaders de DU dont Jean-Rémy Yama et le syndicaliste Albert Obiang.— Delphine Lecoutre (@DelphLecoutre) April 27, 2019
The General Assembly of trade union confederation Dynamique Unitaire, planned for 27th April 2019 in Awendje in Libreville, was prevented from taking place. According to media reports, police occupied the surroundings of the stadium from 5 AM, where the meeting was supposed to take place, and reportedly used tear gas to disperse those members who tried to assemble.
Starting on 8th April 2019, thousands of students protested in several cities throughout the country, in response to a new decree on university scholarships introduced by the government at the end of March. According to the new regulations, only students up to 19 years of age with an average score of not less than 12 out of 20 in their secondary school exams will have access to the scholarships. After three days of protests the government announced a closure of all schools 'until further notice' and later adopted a new decree raising the maximum age from 19 to 27 years to be eligible for the scholarship, while ordering the resumption of classes from 19th April 2019.
On 15th December 2018, police dispersed a spontaneous protest of opposition supporters in Libreville, using tear gas. The protest started after a meeting by opposition leader Jean Ping took place, who said to his supporters that 'when all the roads of negotiation and diplomacy have not yielded the expected results; when the consultation is blocked, only confrontation remains. Here we are. I do not hold you back anymore. The way is free. You can charge. It is the time.' Some protesters were reportedly detained.
#Gabon Inquiétude pour quatre membres de la confédération Dynamique unitairehttps://t.co/pVBHelGZXx Au Gabon, la confédération syndicale Dynamique unitaire dénonce une série d'intimidations et d'arrestations— Clément Boursin (@ClementBoursin) July 15, 2019
On 3rd July 2019, Gabon's Minister of the Interior announced in a statement the intention to prosecute the president of the trade union confederation Dynamique unitaire, Jean Rémy Yama, for 'spreading false news' after the latter stated during a press conference on 2nd July that his organisation was of the opinion that President Bongo Ondimba had passed away. In a statement, the trade union confederation said that several of their representatives were arrested on 11th and 12th July 2019. It concerns Ghislain Malanda (president of the Union of Agents of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation), Simon Ndong Edzo’o (vice president of Dynamique unitaire), Sylvie Nkogue Mbot (confederal secretary of Dynamique unitaire) and Jean Bosco Boungoumou Boulanga (president of Onpese). According to a statement from Dynamique unitaire quoted in media reports, the four were released on 19th July 2019.
On 15th July 2019, judicial police arrested the president of the opposition party Front patriotique gabonais (FPG; Gabonese Patriotic Front) Gérard Ella Nguéma, a few hours before the start of a protest organised by his party in the neighbourhood of Nzeng Ayong in Gabon's capital Libreville. He was arrested and subsequently interrogated in relation to a press conference he held a week prior to his arrest, in which he accused some officials close to President Bongo of using the president's state of health to manipulate him. Nguéma was released on 17th July 2019.
According to media reports, opposition member Privat Ngomo was detained on 12th July 2019 in front of the French embassy in Libreville, for having blocked the sea boulevard. He was reading a declaration, directed at French authorities, asking why they have refused to recognise the victory of opposition leader Jean Ping in the 2016 presidential elections. According to official results, Jean Ping lost the 2016 elections with a narrow margin from incumbent President Ali Bongo - and has disputed the results since.