Attacks on the Press 2000: Republic of Congo

IN LATE 1999, THE MAIN PARTIES TO THE INTERMITTENT ETHNIC CIVIL WAR in this oil-rich country signed peace agreements that seemed reasonably durable at the end of 2000. Yet President Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s government, which is largely controlled by the northern Mbochi tribe, continued to repress political dissent.

The Fundamental Act of 1997, which replaced a more liberal 1996 constitution, guarantees freedom of expression, and 10 private newspapers appear regularly in the capital, Brazzaville. But authorities use the repressive 1996 Press Law to exert tremendous pressure on local journalists. Under this law, journalists found guilty of “insulting the head of state” or “distributing false news” face prison sentences of up to five years and fines as high as 5,000,000 CFA (US$7245).

Since January 1998, legislative authority has been vested in the 75-member National Transition Council, which includes opposition politicians. This council has done nothing to amend the Press Law and other statutes used to restrict independent journalism. Meanwhile, the government continues to screen Internet communications, in violation of the Fundamental Act.

A nationwide demilitarization program proceeded throughout the year, with some 13,000 weapons collected by December 1. Local independent media played a crucial role in coordinating the peace efforts by serving as a platform for dialogue between the government and opposition leaders who challenged Sassou-Nguesso’s vague plan to restore full democracy under a strong president over the next three years.

In a country where low literacy rates restrict newspaper circulation to a small elite, most citizens depend on three government radio stations for news. In addition to Radio-Télé Congo, which was on the air fewer than 18 hours a day in 2000, Radio Liberté, Sassou-Nguesso’s wartime mouthpiece, was also broadcasting last year, while Radio Brazzaville has been on the air since June, 1999. Citizens interested in other perspectives on national affairs must tune in the broadcasts of Africa No. 1 Radio, based in neighboring Gabon, or international networks such as the BBC and Radio France Internationale, whose signals are often relayed by radio stations in neighboring countries.

Alain Shungu Ngongo, Radio France Internationale

Finance Minister Marthias Dzon threatened Ngongo, a reporter for Radio France Internationale as well as the Paris press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières, at a press conference in a Brazzaville hotel.

Ngongo had alleged in his reports that the Directorate General of Taxation had embezzled millions of U.S. dollars from public funds. According to local journalists, the minister publicly called Ngongo his “enemy” and announced that he had ordered police to keep him under surveillance.

Crepin Casino Mbeto, Le Choc

Mbeto, a correspondent for the independent weekly Le Choc in the town of Ouesso (northern Congo) was arrested at his home and taken to the local police station. Police detained him in retaliation for an article he wrote about a brawl between members of various police services at the Ouesso airfield.

According to local sources, the officers were squabbling over control of the airport. Mbeto was detained for two weeks without formal charges and was released on July 29.