- The public scandal following the press claim that Gabon plans to "sell" the disputed island of Mbiané to neighbouring Equatorial Guinea has claimed another victim. Gabonese editor Norbert Ngoua Mezui has been arrested over an article he wrote on relations with Equatorial Guinea three years ago.
The Mbiané affair - referring to an oil-rich islet being disputed between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea since 1972 - started on 25 September, when the newspaper 'L'Echo du Nord' claimed the Libreville government in an unconstitutional move planned to "sell" the island to Equatorial Guinea. Four days later, the National Council on Communications, an official regulatory body, banned the private weekly for three months.
On Tuesday this week, the founder and editor of the Libreville-based and fortnightly 'Nku'u Le Messager', Norbert Ngoua Mezui was arrested, seemingly being a new victim to the same affair that has upset most Gabonese. The editor, according to Kinshasa-based Journaliste en Danger (JED), was "transferred immediately to the Libreville Central prison."
His sudden arrest has caused many to raise their eyebrows, as Mr Mezui's case goes back to 2003. In that year - still working for the independent newspaper 'Misamu', which soon thereafter was banned - the journalist was sentenced to 21 days in prison by the first High Court of Libreville following a defamation legal action.
Mr Mezui was prosecuted for having written an article alleging that Gabonese state treasury funds had disappeared and had caused Gabon to rely on neighbouring Equatorial Guinea to pay the salaries of some Gabonese officials. He was found guilty of "defamation via the press", but remained in freedom awaiting his appeal case. Since 2003, however, there have been no further proceedings in his case.
Focus on Mr Mezui's legal case suddenly reappeared in the pro-government weekly 'Le Crocodile', which had run several articles criticising government officials accused of trying to "sell" Mbiané to Equatorial Guinea, according to reports by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Mr Mezui and his 'Nku'u Le Messager' criticised 'Le Crocodile' over its attacks on the Gabonese Communications Minister, causing 'Le Crocodile' to publish an article that noted Mr Mezui's pending criminal case on 13 October. A few days later, the editor was arrested.
Interestingly, the pro-government dailies 'L'Union' and 'Le Crocodile' have been the most aggressive media in their attacks on some named government leaders during the last two weeks. Private media, such as 'Nku'u Le Messager', have been among those defending the same officials, according to JED and CPJ. The naming-and-shaming campaign in 'Le Crocodile' thus seems to be part of a power struggle within the Libreville government.
Media freedom organisations like JED, CPJ and Paris-based Reporters sans Frontičres (RSF) have protested the sudden imprisonment of Mr Mezui, all claiming this action is illegal all the time the journalist is still waiting for his appeal case to proceed.
His lawyer, Francis Nkéa, told CPJ that "not only does the statute of limitations prohibit the enforcement of a verdict entered three years ago, but the execution of a sentence while an appeal is pending is illegal under Gabonese law." According to RSF, the prosecution had apparently produced falsified documents to get around these limitations.
Also in Gabon, Mr Mezui's arrest has caused protests. The 12 publications that make up the Gabonese private press association - known by its French acronym as APPEL - plan to halt publication to protest the arrest, Jean-Yves Ntoutoumé, the group's secretary-general, told CPJ. Mr Mezui is president of APPEL.
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