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Media watchdog slams Gabon over ‘erosion’ of freedom

Bongo taken ill

Libreville, Gabon | AFP | Freedom of the press is being eroded in Gabon, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Wednesday, after the government suspended a newspaper for commenting on the hospitalisation of President Ali Bongo.

Gabon’s media regulator, the High Authority for Communications (HAC), on Friday handed a three-month suspension to the L’Aube (Dawn) newspaper and a six-month suspension to its editor.

The paper had run an article saying the country had been put on “very dangerous autopilot” in Bongo’s absence.

It called on Prime Minister Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet to name the speaker of the Senate, Lucie Milebou Mboussou, as interim president to fill the power vacuum.

RSF’s Africa representative, Arnaud Froger, called for the immediate lifting of the suspension, “the latest act in a worrying erosion of freedom of the press in Gabon in recent months”.

The HAC, created only in February, has handed out more and more suspensions, typically against media that are critical of the government, Bongo or his entourage, Froger said in a statement.

“No law empowers the media regulator in Gabon to suspend a journalist,” he added.

Separately, an association of media owners, OPAM, issued a statement accusing the HAC of “authoritarian excess”.

Bongo, 59, was taken to hospital in Riyadh on October 24 after he arrived in the Saudi capital to attend an economic forum.

Four days later, his spokesman said Bongo had been admitted for “severe fatigue”.

But on Sunday, spokesman Ike Ngouoni acknowledged that the illness was severe — “bleeding which justified… surgical care in a highly specialised sector.”

Bongo’s condition had “greatly improved” and he was “recovering most of his functions,” Ngouoni said.

Ministerial meetings in Gabon are typically held every week or fortnight, but none has now taken place for three weeks.

“This creates problems for the running of the country… because most decisions, such as planned laws, are discussed in the cabinet,” said Telesphore Ondo, a specialist in constitutional law.

Bongo took over when his father, Omar Bongo, died in 2009 after nearly 42 years at the helm.

Despite massive oil wealth, about a third of the West African state’s population of 1.8 million still live below the poverty line — the result, say experts, of inequality, poor governance and corruption.

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