A Reporters Without Borders delegation led by secretary-general Christophe Deloire met with President Ali Bongo Ondimba in Libreville during a three-day visit that ended 9 February, telling him that "media freedom has made progress in Gabon but still needs a great deal of improvement."
Noting that Gabon is ranked 89th in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, the delegation urged the Bongo administration to "help improve both the everyday practice of journalism and the legal framework for freedom of information by repealing and replacing the 2001 communication law."
During the 8 February meeting at his seaside palace, the RWB delegation hailed the reform intentions professed by President Bongo but called for "concrete actions." Rapid measures are needed to ensure that journalists are no longer the targets of police brutality and intimidation by officials, the delegation said.
President Bongo said: "Gabon is a country with a great deal of media activity. I make sure that no one is arrested for their views and no journalists are currently detained. But we deplore the excesses of the past three years, which worry us. Because of economic difficulties, journalists have been turning into pens for hire. Journalism should not be reduced to invective."
The president also stressed his determination to guarantee media freedom and asked Reporters Without Borders to help Gabon to evolve.
Repeated media freedom violations
Deloire and the other member of the Reporters Without Borders delegation, Africa Desk chief Ambroise Pierre, shared the conclusions of their fact-finding visit with the President.
Gabon has a diverse press capable of being very outspoken but it continues to have many problems. News outlets are harassed. Many are just the mouthpieces of politicians of various kinds. The press regulator often suspends them. The draconian nature of sanctions makes journalists and media vulnerable vis-à-vis the authorities. Journalists are widely despised. Access to information is obstructed. Journalists still censor themselves on certain subjects.
Reporters Without Borders calls for investigations when news media are the victims of acts of vandalism or violence against property or persons. The impunity usually enjoyed by those responsible for violence against media and journalists is unacceptable. Several concrete cases were raised with President Bongo.
To evaluate the situation, the delegation met with journalists working for Gabonese and international media, media executives and editors, foreign diplomats and Gabonese officials.
It was received by presidential chief of staff (and former communication minister) Laure Olga Gondjout, communication minister Blaise Louembé, interior minister Jean-François Ndongou, justice minister Ida Reteno Assonouet and National Communication Council president Guy-Bertrand Mapangou.
Need to overhaul 2001 law
The president's office asked the RWB delegation to submit recommendations for a proposed bill amending the 2001 broadcasting, cinematographic and print media law. But instead of amending this law, which suffers from gaps and imprecisions, RWB recommends its repeal and the drafting of a new law.
Lip service is paid to media freedom in the 2001 law but no state institution guarantees it. The 2001 law refers to censorship as "a human rights violation" but does not forbid it and says it may be justified in "cases envisaged by the law." The National Communication Council's duties are not sufficiently defined and the communication ministry's control of the state-owned media, especially its powers of appointment, is problematic.
The Gabonese authorities have asked Reporters Without Borders to provide a list of recommendations for the draft law within two months.
In RWB's view, the most urgent needs are suppression of vaguely-worded media offences, more clarity about offences such as defamation and insult, recognition of the existence of electronic media (which are currently operating in a legal void) and elimination of jail sentences for news providers just doing their job.