June 26, 2000
His Excellency Laurent-Désiré Kabila
President of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Democratic Republic of Congo
Fax: 011-234-88-02120/ 1-202-234-2609
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged by the continued persecution of Freddy Loseke Lisumbu la Yayenga, editor of the Kinshasa-based weekly La Libre Afrique. We condemn Loseke’s recent conviction for “insulting the army,” an absurd charge that is an affront to the most basic standards of press freedom.
It is CPJ’s view, a view supported by a growing body of international law, that unlike individuals, governments and their component institutions can neither be libeled nor insulted. Democracy is weakened whenever public officials wield defamation statutes to stifle independent criticism of their public performance. And as we stated in our letters to Your Excellency on March 31 and again on May 3, CPJ believes that no journalist should go to jail for what he or she writes.
On December 31, 1999, armed soldiers under the command of an officer known as Chief Iduma arrested Loseke at his Kinshasa residence. The journalist was then taken to the Kokolo military base, where he was flogged and confined in a dingy, windowless cell.
Loseke’s arrest resulted from two articles that he published in the December 29 and December 31, 1999 issues of La Libre Afrique, which has since ceased publication. Both reports alleged an imminent army-sponsored plot to overthrow Your Excellency. Sources in Kinshasa told CPJ that Loseke was initially charged with “betrayal of the state in times of war”Ð a crime punishable by death.
Loseke’s trial opened on January 11 at the Court of Military Order (COM) in Kinshasa. Despite the DRC’s constitutional due process guarantees, he was denied legal representation. During the hearing, he was forced to reveal confidential sources. He identified General Hilaire Muland Kapend as the chief conspirator, outlined the coup plot, and named the plotters’ meeting spot. As a result of Loseke’s forced testimony, police arrested several suspects, including General Kapend (who was later released, according to international news reports).
On April 14, a physically exhausted Loseke once again appeared before the Court of Military Order, this time with legal representation. In their closing argument, Loseke’s lawyers pleaded for his temporary release from detention for health reasons (Loseke suffers from kidney failure, sources in Kinshasa reported). The presiding military judge quickly dismissed the motion, however.
Without any explanation, and over the objections of Loseke’s lawyers, the charge was later changed to “insulting the army.” Without further deliberation, the journalist was found guilty of this second charge on May 19, 2000, and sentenced to three years in prison. The decisions of the Court of Military Order cannot be appealed.
CPJ is shocked at the injustice of this conviction and at the deplorable treatment of Loseke since his arrest on December 31, 1999. His prolonged detention, and the murkiness of the legal proceedings against him, violate the DRC’s constitutional due process guarantees along with his internationally-recognized rights as a journalist. CPJ believes that Loseke did nothing other than seek, receive and circulate information, a right affirmed for all people, including journalists, by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Meanwhile, despite continued protests by CPJ as well as Congolese and other press freedom organizations, the press freedom situation in the DRC has deteriorated even further. In all, more than 70 journalists have been imprisoned since Your Excellency seized power in May 1997, according to CPJ’s research.
CPJ respectfully reminds Your Excellency that you promised to respect press freedom when you addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York in January. We urge you to publicly commit to respecting the rights of journalists to report the news without interference or fear of reprisal, and that you use the powers of your office to ensure that Freddy Loseke Lisumbu la Yayenga is immediately and unconditionally released from illegal detention.
We await your comments.
Ann K. Cooper