Based on information before the International Press Institute (IPI), Norbert Ngoua Mezui, the founder and editor of the weekly Nku’u Le Messager and a board member of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), was arrested on 17 October.
After being held in police detention, Mezui appeared before the courts on 18 October and was imprisoned and ordered to pay a fine of approximately US $600. He was later taken to the Libreville Central prison to serve his sentence.
Mezui’s imprisonment is apparently founded on an original sentence he received in 2003 when he was found guilty of criminal defamation for an article written in the private newspaper Misamu. The article concerned the alleged disappearance of treasury funds and led to a ban on Misamu. Despite the verdict, Mezui remained free pending an appeal.
The journalist’s arrest also follows weeks of heated debate in Gabon over the so-called “Mbiané affair” involving the possible sale of three oil-rich islands—Mbiané, Conga and Cocotiers—in the Corisco Bay to Equatorial Guinea.
In late September, there were news reports, subsequently denied by the government, that an agreement had been struck to sell the islands.
During the growing state scandal, the previously pro-government newspapers L’Union and Le Crocodile heavily criticized the government, which was defended by a number of private newspapers, including Nku’u Le Messager.
As part of its media campaign, Le Crocodile mentioned Mezui’s pending appeal in a 13 October article. The journalist was arrested four days later.
Commenting on the case, IPI Director Johann P. Fritz said, “According to legal experts, Mezui’s imprisonment prior to his appeal is illegal under Gabonese law. Given this fact, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mezui’s imprisonment is politically motivated and a clear attempt to chill comment from whatever quarter on the Mbiané affair.”
“I would call on the Gabonese authorities to release Mezui immediately and to start the process of removing the criminal defamation laws that enabled him to be prosecuted and imprisoned.”
“An independent and transparent inquiry into how Mezui came to be imprisoned before his appeal should also be carried out to ensure that, in the future, there is no repetition,” said Fritz.