Libreville, Gabon: When President Ali Bongo celebrated Press Freedom Day on May 3, the vast majority of Gabon’s press boycotted the event and held their own meeting elsewhere in Libreville, the capital. Speaking before a handful of pro-government media, Bongo complained that the opposition press demand subsidies but spend their time insulting him, once again demonstrating a 50 year Bongo family tradition of confusing state finances with private assets. “The press is against me,” he lamented. Bongo’s statement underlined the extent to which Gabon’s media landscape is polarized as we head to presidential elections in August.
“Of the 50 media outlets in the country, only ten get government subsidies and all ten are pro-government!” says François Ndjimbi, Director of the online daily newspaper Gabon Review. “The pro government Gabon-Matin is getting one-point-five million cfa francs ($2,600) even though they haven’t published for six months.”
Gabon state run TV news is a painful exercise in government propaganda. The first 15 minutes are devoted to all the great things President Bongo did today and the second 15 minutes to people thanking President Bongo for all the great things he did today. To make matters worse, each major ministry has its own TV crew which produces badly edited news packages on what their minister did today. “We have to broadcast these stories,” an RTG member of management told me. “But sometimes we have to send them back because they are so bad. It is just embarrassing.” The result is, little news of the country gets covered. The news is basically the government elite talking to each other.
Each of Gabon’s nine regions has a state run TV station which has no local news show. The job of the employees, all with the status of civil servant, is to send news stories to Libreville for broadcast. But not every region gets the same service. Gabon TV has not broadcast in the opposition stronghold and the country’s oil hub of Port Gentil since 2007. The five highly-paid, by Gabonese standards, civil servant administrators there have a radio transmitter which “only covers the neighborhood.” Public station director Mr. Du Chateau said: “Once our signal went as far as Angola, Guinea and Sao Tome.” In 2012, Du Chateau tried to reboot the TV station on his own but was accused of setting up a private station on government funds and was ordered to stand down.
The city of Franceville got special attention from the Bongo family. This is the birthplace of Omar Bongo, the man who held power in French interests from 1967 until his death in 2009, when he was replaced by his son, Ali Bongo, in elections which even the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, called irregular. There are roughly 50 employees at the station, including five reporters, which seems heavy for a TV that does no local broadcasting. The state run radio has three local news programs a day.
When I visited the Gabon TV station in Libreville, I found a modern three-story building which the Chinese had handed over, ready-to-broadcast, in 2007. In the main studio were three colorful 42 gallon plastic barrels filled to the brim with water dripping down from the roof. The water had spilled out under the set and cables were lying in the puddles. Although scores of civil servants work here, including some 60 reporters, it would seem nobody could figure out the bureaucratic red-tape to designate the person responsible for emptying the water from the barrels.
Gabon TV will not improve, nor repair, any time soon. State finances are in tatters. Oil represents 44% of government revenues but the price of oil has fallen 60% since 2014. This has forced the government to reduce spending by 30% which means, even the grand palaces the Bongo family and close associates built around the country with government funds are now rotting. The government says it is financing only two priorities this year: the presidential elections in August and the 2017 Cup of African Nations soccer tournament it is hosting next year.
There are three private TV-Radio stations in both Franceville and Port Gentil but as everywhere in the country, they are owned by businessmen, politicians and members of the government with a clear agenda that censors news. All make parties and politicians pay for coverage of their events but they will not cover all events if the outlet’s owner does not like the political line.
One exception is Canal Delta in Port Gentil which is run by businessman Joel Otando, a close associate of President Bongo. “We organized a debate and invited all eight parties to come,” said Igor Inanga, Canal Delta’s editor-in-chief. “There were only two conditions: one, they pay the price to take part and, two, refrain from insulting each other.” Inanga said seven party officials took part and, unlike the daily bread of Gabon’s media landscape, they defended their programs without insulting one another.
This begs the question whether, in a country where it is common practice for journalists to make people pay to be covered, if the Canal Delta experience is not the lesser of evils? This is a very hard thing to accept for a reporter who has always made financial independence from those being covered an ethical priority.
Canal Delta’s approach is very different from Port Gentil’s Media Plus, which is owned by the Minister of Water and Forests, Gabriel Tchango, even though Gabonese law forbids civil servants from owning or being active in business. Tchango has made it clear, no opposition voices will be heard on his media. But the station is self-sustaining thanks to its commercial activities, according to General Director Abou Becker. “We have covered all our expenses since 2012,” Becker boasted. They also received $3,500 in government subsidies last year. “This year all subsidies have been blocked.”
Another interesting work in progress is TV Passa in Franceville being set up by private businessman Mano Linis Steeve Leonce. He wants his station to be a community station subsidized by the Regional Assembly. The governor has offered him half the ground floor in his administrative building and is footing the bill for electricity and water. “I have turned away people who wanted to invest in the station,” Mano Leonce said, “because I want it to be totally independent and represent all currents in the community.” Leonce said he will not accept private or political interference and that is why he wants the Regional Assembly to finance his project. Leonce is paying for the equipment and installation with his own money. He declined to tell us the origin of his wealth when asked how he could afford it.
The Price to Pay for Being on the Wrong Side
Things can go terribly wrong for a media outlet which gets on the wrong side of the government in Gabon. The anti-Bongo TV Plus in Libreville had all its material seized in 2009 without any judicial process because the Minister of Communications did not like the platform they were giving the opposition. TV Plus still uses its studio to produce daily news programs but must take the cassettes to a private firm miles away which broadcasts their signal.
Gabon’s TV broadcasters may have little influence on the elections if government plans to make the whole country 100% digital terrestrial television next month go into effect. Only Gabon state TV is equipped for the change-over which was supposed to take place a year ago, before the the government broadcaster was ready.
Many Gabonese cannot afford a newspaper which costs 500 to 600 cfa francs ( .85 cents to $1.02) which means the print press is basically insider news-letters. Although per capita income in the oil, manganese and timber rich country is $17,300, a full third of the population live below the poverty line,with 13.2% in absolute poverty. If you are only making $1.25 a day, you may prefer to eat than buy a newspaper. However, the majority of Gabonese have access to radio and a television somewhere.