Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled to learn that Gabon’s media regulator, the High Authority for Communication (HAC), has shut down one of the country’s most popular news websites for a month. The HAC keeps on harassing the media and this latest arbitrary sanction confirms its complete loss of credibility.
RSF has been denouncing the HAC’s unjustified media closures for more than a year and each time another occurs, press freedom in Gabon is dealt a new blow.
Its latest victim is Gabon Media Time, a website with more than 40,000 unique visitors a day that posted a story on 31 July about the shortage of beds in Gabon’s hospitals. Headlined “A two-year-old girl sent home because of a lack of beds at Gabon’s Cancer Institute,” it described the problem as a “real thorn in the government’s side.”
Ordering the website’s closure for a month the next day, the HAC accused it of “malicious, suspicious and tendentious insinuations” that violated journalistic “ethics and professional conduct.”
When contacted by RSF, Gabon Media Time editor Morel Mondjo Mouega described the sanction as “harsh with regard to the subject matter, which was verified with the family,” and said he would appeal to the HAC to reduce the punishment, which would entail a significant loss of revenue and which has led to the temporary lay-off of about ten employees.
“The HAC is a like 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,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “This policy of systematic sanctions encourages self-censorship, creates economic problems for many media outlets and helps to undermine the country’s image. If the Gabonese authorities are still committed to press freedom, they have no choice but to completely overhaul the legislation regulating the entity that is supposed to defend press freedom.”
According to RSF’s tally, this latest arbitrary sanction has been preceded by 12 others since the HAC’s creation by government decree in February – an unprecedented punitive wave that already prompted RSF to call for the overhaul of the Gabonese media’s “executioner.”
The HAC’s latest victims also include Freddhy Koula, a reporter and sports consultant for Radio France Internationale who was banned on 16 July from practising journalism for six months because of his Facebook posts quoting complaints by members of Gabon’s under-20 women’s football team about their accommodation and accusing some of their supervisors of rape and sexual assault.
The HAC ordered the Gabonese media not to work with Koula, who lives in France, and said it would enforce application of its decision without waiting for the conclusion of an investigation into the allegations that was ordered by the previous sports minister.
And on 24 July, the HAC ordered the immediate suspension of no fewer than 30 online media outlets until they have complied with all the necessary administrative and legal redtape.
Gabon is ranked 115th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.