Gabon





Basic Data

Gabon

Official Country Name: Gabonese Republic
Region (Map name): Africa
Population: 1,208,436
Language(s): French, Fang, Myene, Bateke, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi
Literacy rate: 63.2%

Background & General Characteristics

Gabon is a unitary republic on the west coast of Africa, south of Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea and west of Congo-Brazzaville. Its capital is Libreville. Gabon's 1.23 million people have had the same president for 35 years: President Omar Albert-Bernard Bongo, born in 1935. Only two presidents have ruled Gabon since the country's independence from France in 1960. Bongo previously had served in Gabon's Foreign Ministry when independence was attained; prior to that, he had served two years in the French air force. Bongo was chief of staff and defense minister under Gabon's first head of state, President Leon Mba, becoming vice president in 1966. One year after Mba's death, Bongo assumed the presidency, the position he has held ever since.

Gabon is composed of more than 40 ethnic groups but has not experienced the same degree of ethnic conflict as other African states. This has been due primarily to the relative prosperity brought on by the tapping of Gabon's rich oil reserves and to the continuous presence of French troops in Gabon for nearly four decades since their reinstatement of President Mba in 1964 after he was deposed in coup. Regarding religion, the majority of Gabon's citizenry is Christian. President Bongo himself converted to Islam and took the name "Omar" in 1973.

Although President Bongo had made Gabon a single-party state in 1968, public protests against President Bongo in 1990 due to declining oil prices led to a new Constitution in 1991 that created a multi-party system. Nonetheless, limited space exists for full and free discussion and criticism of the president or his family by the press, as the Communications Code specifies criminal and civil penalties for what is judged to be libelous expression. While the National Communications Council (CNC) set up under the Ministry of Communications supposedly was established to ensure press freedom and high-quality journalism, the CNC actually works against journalists and freedom of expression. Through the CNC, the government is empowered to transform civil libel lawsuits into criminal suits and can initiate criminal libel suits against those issuing supposedly libelous statements against elected officials.

For the most part, the government of Gabon controls the media, though arguably somewhat less stringently than in a number of other African states. Starting in 1998 the government began to limit freedom of expression in the private media more rigorously. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual report for 2001, "Since 1998, the CNC has been using licensing regulations to trim the number of private radio stations. There are still a few apolitical private and community radio stations in Gabon, and opposition newspapers appear regularly. But local journalists say self-censorship is more pervasive than ever."

Newspapers are almost entirely politicized. The one daily paper that exists in the country and is distributed on a national basis is government affiliated. Private weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly papers number about ten to twelve. Opposition parties produce most of the country's newspapers.

The government-affiliated newspaper is L'Union , which publishes daily. One of the main opposition political weekly newspapers is Le Bucheron , while La Relance is an independent weekly paper, unattached to any political party. Le Reveil also publishes weekly. La Voix du Peuple, another independent paper, publishes bimonthly.

Economic Framework

Gabon is heavily dependent on oil to fuel its economy. Eighty percent of the country's exports are derived from Gabon's oil. In addition to crude oil, the principal exports are timber, manganese, and uranium. Annual per capita income is about US$3,180.

Gabon's connection with oil has meant that the political atmosphere and degree of tolerance for open criticism of government leaders and policies fluctuates with the economy. When oil prices are down, as they were in the late 1980s, government acceptance of political protest has been much more limited; with rising oil prices, government permissiveness of dissent also appears to rise.

The private press often has difficulty meeting the financial requirements of the government in terms of licensing costs and the penalties that sometimes are imposed for violations of what the government considers reasonable press laws that by international standards are quite restrictive. Consequently, the number of private newspapers in print at any particular time varies.

On a questionably positive note, President Bongo made 250 million CFA francs (about US$345,000) available to the private press in January 2001 to encourage their development, but not all papers were funded, much to their chagrin. The president also stated that the private press would receive double this amount each year on a regular basis. Apparently, the president distributed the funds in such a way as to reward those papers that cast the president and the ruling Democratic Party in a favorable light. As the Committee to Protect Journalists put it, "With confounding ease, President Omar Bongo maintained his smooth-talking, iron-fisted rule by suppressing critical media voices via the Penal Code and by simply purchasing good press."

Venal rewards for journalistic coverage are rampant throughout much of Africa, making the smaller presses beholden to whoever provides them with financial support. This is no less true in Gabon, "where public expressions of unconditional support for President Bongo are often rewarded with cash-filled envelopes," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2001.

Press Laws

The Constitution officially guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. However, the Communications Code authorizes state prosecution of journalists deemed to have breached the limits of press freedom. Journalists can be charged with both civil and criminal libel. Efforts to tighten the Code even further were made in June 2001, when the National Assembly and Senate gave their stamp of approval to a CNC proposal that publications found guilty of libel and other criminal acts be suspended for one to three months on first offense and three to six months on repeat offenses. The CNC proposal also expanded the scope of libelous conduct in order to protect the "dignity of the person" and made possible the jailing of editors and authors of articles judged to be libelous for two to six months, as well as the imposition of fines ranging from $700 to $7,000 on such guilty parties. At the close of 2001, however, President Bongo had not yet signed the new Code into law.

Censorship

Most newspapers do criticize the president, and all papers (including L'Union , affiliated with the government) criticize government and party leaders, risking the imposition of penalties specified in the Communications Code. Individual citizens and members of the National Assembly are accorded somewhat greater latitude to debate presidential policies and activities and to criticize ministers and other government officials, though not always without risk.

The government has censored even the pro-government paper, L'Union . Germain Ngoyo Moussavou, the managing editor of L'Union , was dismissed from his job by presidential decree in November 2001 after scathingly criticizing Antoine Mboumbou Miyakou, Gabon's Minister of the Interior, for mishandling preparations for the December legislative elections.

Over the course of several years, the government so frequently censored one satirical weekly newspaper, La Griffe , that by mid-2001 the paper had relocated to France. This followed the transformation of the original paper into Le Gri-Gri , first issued as a supplement to LaGriffe and later as a paper in its own right. Both La Griffe and Le Gri-Gri were suspended on February 15, 2001. This marked the third suspension of La Griffe in less than three years. In fact, one of the paper's editors, Dorothee Ngouoni, had already left Gabon in July 1999 after being convicted of defamation.

Moreover, the CNC, the same government organ that suspended La Griffe and Le Gri-Gri , temporarily banned Michel Ongoundou Loundah, the editor-in-chief of La Griffe , and Raphaël Ntoutoume Ngoghe, the paper's publisher, from practicing journalism in Gabon.

Subsequently, Le Gri-Gri relocated to France, where it was renamed Le Gri-Gri International and began covering news from all of Africa, though still concentrating on politics in Gabon.

In mid-October 2001 government pressure also was applied to Mr. Barre, the manager of Sogapress, the local distributing company for Le Gri-Gri International . Barre was summoned before Gabon's national chief of police, Jean-Claude Labouda, who apparently acted under instructions from the Ministry of the Interior in ordering Barre to halt the paper's distribution in Gabon. Without a warrant, agents from the Ministry's investigation department on October 12 had seized the final copies of Le Gri-Gri International available on newsstands in Gabon, three days prior to Barre's being ordered to stop its distribution.

State-Press Relations

While ostensibly supporting the private media through state financial subsidies that began in January 2001, the government also actively censures and controls the private press. Even staff members from L'Union reportedly have felt themselves obliged to object to government efforts to stifle press freedom.

Interestingly, the president, his wife, and the president's sister-in-law all took La Griffe to court in 2001, claiming each of them was defamed in several articles published in that paper. And in 2001 Prime Minister Jean François Ntoutoume Emane chastised Le Gri-Gri International and similar news outlets for showing an "appalling disrespectful attitude" by debating questions concerning the likelihood of political change in the country.

Attitude toward Foreign Media

The BBC chose not to operate in Gabon for financial reasons. Other foreign media, including the Voice of America, Radio France International, and other international radio stations, have operated in the country without government interference, for the most part. As the U.S. Department of State noted, in 2001, "Foreign newspapers and magazines were available widely."

However, on December 23, 2001 Antoine Lawson, a local reporter for the British news agency, Reuters, lost his camera to police, who confiscated it and destroyed the film. Lawson had been photographing police evacuating a bar that day, when the second round of legislative elections was held and all sales outlets for alcohol were to have been closed.

If a newspaper originates in Gabon but is published abroad, government intolerance of political criticism may resemble that meted out toward the private press in Gabon, Le Gri-Gri International being one such example.

Broadcast Media

Few private broadcasting services exist in Gabon. As BBC Monitoring wrote, "In October 1999 communications officials suspended four private radio and television stations after accusing them of illegal broadcasting."

The government-owned, national broadcasting service, Radiodiffusion-Television Gabonaise (RTVG), is based in Libreville and operates two radio channels, both affiliated with the ruling Democratic Party: RTG1 (also known as RTG Chaine 1), broadcasting in French, and RTG2 (or RTG Chaine 2), "a network of provincial stations broadcasting in French and vernacular languages," according to BBC Monitoring. "Africa No1," a radio station based in Gabon and supported by French interests, broadcasts across Africa on both short-wave and FM frequencies.

Besides its radio channels, RTVG has two television channels, again representing Democratic Party views; one broadcasts in French to 80 percent of Gabon's territory, the other, RTG2, broadcasts only in the capital. A private satellite TV channel, TV SAT, also broadcasts from Libreville.

Electronic News Media

Internet access and use are unrestricted by the government in Gabon. Three Internet service providers were operating in the country at the end of 2001, only one of them owned by the state. Internet cafés are available in urban areas to allow Internet access at fairly reasonable prices.

L'Union Edition Web was the first weekly newspaper made available via the Internet in Gabon.

Summary

Although Gabon has developed its economic wealth to a greater extent than many of the surrounding countries in Africa, government restriction of the media has grown over time. Few journalists and editors can escape the wrath of government officials intent on prosecuting them for libel, as the Communications Code has made it possible to charge members of the media with both criminal and civil libel and to punish the guilty with jail sentences, fines, suspension of licenses, or bans on practicing journalism. Even when the private press has gone outside the country to publish critiques of government leaders, as with Le Gri-Gri International , journalists cannot be assured that their publications will safely make it onto the newsstands in Gabon and reach their intended audience. Journalists consequently must practice careful self-censorship or risk government repression. Winning 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly in the December 2001 legislative elections, with 82 percent of Libreville's eligible voters choosing to remain home (as well as 56 percent of the voting public elsewhere in the country), the ruling Democratic Party has shifted Gabon increasingly toward becoming a one-party state.

In a more positive direction, however, international media have been permitted to operate in Gabon with relatively little government interference. The use of the Internet likewise has been unrestricted, and growing numbers of Gabonese are likely to resort to this form of communication if the government continues to heavy-handedly regulate public expression through the print media and broadcasting networks.

Globalization, too, appears to be making a helpful difference for Gabon's media professionals and may help shape an eventual increase in freedom of expression in Gabon. In November 2001 the Association of Free and Independent Publishers in Gabon became a member of the World Association of Newspapers. This relationship will likely offer the Gabon Association's members a certain measure of solidaristic support and some protection against government intrusion and repression as they ply their trade, at least somewhere down the line.

Significant Dates

  • 1998: Government of Gabon increasingly attempts to use licensing withdrawals as a means of restricting the number of private radio stations operating in the country.
  • July 1999: Dorothee Ngouoni, one of La Griffe 's editors, leaves Gabon after being judged guilty of defamation.
  • October 1999: Communications officials suspend four private radio and television stations for illegal broadcasting.
  • January 2001: President Bongo makes government financial support available to the private press, promising to renew such support annually, but not all newspapers receive funding.
  • February 2001: La Griffe and Le Gri-Gri are suspended, a status in which they remain for the rest of the year; key staff are banned from practicing journalism.
  • June 2001: The National Assembly and Senate approve a proposal to make the Communications Code more stringent.
  • October 2001: Le Gri-Gri International is prevented from being distributed in Gabon and government officials illegally confiscate copies of the paper from newsstands.
  • November 2001: Germain Ngoyo Moussavou, managing editor of the pro-government paper, L'Union , is dismissed from his job by presidential decree for defaming the Minister of the Interior.
  • December 2001: Legislative elections are held, with a record 82 percent of eligible voters in Libreville failing to vote and 56 percent of the electorate elsewhere in Gabon choosing to do the same; the ruling Democratic Party wins 80 percent of the votes cast.

Bibliography

BBC Monitoring. "Country profile: Gabon." Reading, UK: British Broadcasting Corporation, June 29, 2002. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/country_profiles/1023203.stm .

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State. "Gabon." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2001 . Washington, DC: Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, March 4, 2002. Available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/af/8374.htm .

Committee to Protect Journalists. "Gabon." Attacks on the Press in 2001: Africa 2001 . New York, NY: CPJ, 2002. Available at http://www.cpj.org/attacks01/africa01/gabon.html .

Reporters without Borders. "Gabon." Africa annual report 2002 . Paris, France: Reporters sans Frontiéres, April 30, 2002. Available at http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=1837 .

Barbara A. Lakeberg-Dridi



Also read article about Gabon from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Hector E. Perez
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Oct 21, 2007 @ 6:06 am
I am short wave listener and I hear Radio from Gabon at my receiver very well
F adlu Rahman Sherif
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Apr 12, 2012 @ 1:13 pm
i want to inquire if herbalists and preachers are aloud to talk on the radio stations in Gabon if he pays for an air time.Thank you.

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