January 20, 2000
His Excellency Laurent-Desiré Kabila
President of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Democratic Republic of Congo
VIA FAX: 011-234-88-02120 / 1-202-234-2609
On the occasion of the United Nations Security Council open briefing on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), scheduled to take place in New York on January 24, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wishes once again to express its grave concern over the appalling press freedom situation in the DRC.
Many Congolese journalists have told CPJ that since Your Excellency came to power in May 1997, press freedom has been even more abused than it was under the repressive regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. In the period from May 1997 until the end of 1999, CPJ documented more than 60 cases of journalists who were imprisoned, often without trial or sentence, and dozens more cases of harassment, threats, attacks (including brutal flogging) and censorship. In many cases the authorities have used “national security” as an excuse to crack down on the press.
Two journalists are currently imprisoned in the DRC. Polycarpe Honsek-Hokwoy, editor of the weekly private newspaper La Solidarité, was arrested by a group of eight armed men on November 6, 1999, at his newspaper’s offices in Kinshasa. This was in connection with an article published in the newspaper one day earlier that incorrectly reported that police had arrested Finance Minister Mawampanga Mwana Nanga after a local judge indicted him in a case of high-level corruption. Honsek-Hokwoy was accused of distributing false news, and is being held without trial at a Kinshasa-Gombe military camp.
In the second case, Freddy Loseke Lisumbu La Yayenga, editor of the Kinshasa-based private newspaper La Libre Afrique, was arrested at his home by a group of soldiers on January 3, 2000. This followed the publication of an article in the newspaper alleging that elements of the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC) were plotting a coup against Your Excellency. The editor has not been formally charged and is being held in solitary confinement at the Kokolo military base.
And while CPJ welcomes the release on January 15 of Djodjo Kazadi, director of the Kinshasa-based political weekly newspaper La Palme d’Or, after 66 days in detention without charge, we are disturbed to learn that agents of the National Information Agency (ANR) forced the journalist to sign a document in which he promised never again to publish any article critical of Your Excellency’s government.
These recent incidents are apparently part of a concerted campaign by Your Excellency’s government to suppress independent media in the DRC. Throughout 1999, numerous journalists were detained for short periods of time, while some were repeatedly detained or harassed-such as Modeste Mutinga, editor in chief of Le Potentiel, one of the country’s leading independent newspapers, as well as president of the nongovernmental organization “Médias Pour la Paix” (Media for Peace). Many journalists were illegally held in military barracks or other “secret locations.” Those reporting on government corruption or mismanagement, on the DRC’s increasing economic woes, or anything perceived to be critical of the authorities–especially regarding the war–risked falling victim to security agents of the infamous National Information Agency (ANR).
The economic interests of both the Congolese and external parties to the conflict were another particularly thorny issue–for example the fighting between DRC troops and their Zimbabwean allies on the one hand, and Congolese rebels on the other, around the strategic diamond town of Mbuji-Mayi. The harassment and effective censorship of Radio France Internationale reporter Ghislaine Dupont, on assignment in the area in November, was just one example of the government’s sensitivity to the issue.
Censorship took various forms, however. On January 13, 1999, a fire destroyed the studios of the private Radio Télévision Message de Vie (RTMV) in Kinshasa, run by a Pentecostal pastor of Angolan nationality. Although it was never proven, suspicions ran high that the fire was not accidental. And in July the government’s paranoia about the foreign media again became clear when the Minister of Information imposed a ban on broadcasts of all foreign television and radio programs.
As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ readily acknowledges that rival DRC rebel groups, which control various parts of the country, have also been guilty of attacks on the press. Yet this fact in no way detracts from Your Excellency’s obligations to respect press freedom in the areas under your government’s control. The right of journalists to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds is guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 9 of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights, to all of which, we respectfully remind Your Excellency, the DRC is a signatory.
CPJ therefore strongly urges that Your Excellency do everything in your power to:
- order the immediate and unconditional release of journalists Polycarpe Honsek-Hokwoy and Freddy Loseke Lisumbu La Yayenga (any case against them should be pursued in the civil courts);
- enforce respect for the law concerning arrests and imprisonment (for example, arrest and search warrants, legal limits on custody, access to lawyers and families);
- ban the imprisonment of journalists at military barracks and other “secret locations;”
- ensure that the police, army, security forces, local authorities and government officials stop harassing journalists;
- revise the June 1996 press law to abolish prison sentences for “press crimes” such as libel.
CPJ has already written to the United Nations Secretary-General and each member of the UN Security Council to alert them to these issues. Since international attention will soon be focused on the DRC as a result of the special meeting of the UN Security Council, we trust you will agree that it would be in Your Excellency’s best interests to demonstrate a commitment to democratic rule and governance by publicly addressing these press freedom issues.
We would welcome your comments.
Ann K. Cooper