Attacks on the Press 2000: Democratic Republic of Congo

PRESS FREEDOM HAS BEEN ONE OF MANY CASUALTIES OF THE CIVIL WAR that began as a rebel insurgency in August 1998 and has continued to destabilize the entire region, with Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia supporting President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi fighting on the side of Congolese rebel forces (although Kabila’s army includes some 15,000 Burundian Hutu mercenaries).

Despite a 1999 cease-fire accord, fighting raged throughout the vast territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) last year. While both rebel organizations and the Kinshasa government denounced each other’s human rights records as part of public relations offensives, they also continued to attack journalists.

Although CPJ was not consistently able to document attacks on the press in the rebel-controlled eastern and northern regions, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) seemed responsible for most reported abuses. Monitoring of press conditions in the country as a whole improved after the May admission of the Kinshasa media watchdog Journaliste en Danger (JED) into the International Freedom of Expression Network (IFEX).

On May 25, eight RCD rebels abducted Nicaise Kibel Bel’Oka, publisher of the Goma weekly Les Coulisses, held him for three days, and beat him repeatedly before dumping him on an isolated road where he was later rescued by passersby. Sources in the DRC told CPJ that the beating was in retaliation for a series of articles in which Kibel’Bel had denounced RCD schemes to float a new currency in the provinces under its control.

In late August, Kivu-based RCD rebels arrested photographer Jean Pierre Tanganyika after they saw him taking pictures of victims at the scene of a grenade explosion. He was detained at a local army barracks, briefly released on September 16, and then re-arrested that same day. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

Burundian, Rwandan, and Ugandan troops allied with the RCD also detained and roughed up journalists at will. In mid-August, for example, sources in Rwanda and Uganda reported that Bahati Samy of the Goma daily Le Volcan and Mapori Mwanafuka of the Bukavu daily Solidarité were being held on unspecified charges in a Rwandan jail. CPJ was unable to corroborate this information, and the condition of the two reporters remained unclear at year’s end.

Journalists working in towns and provinces under direct government control did not fare any better. Since former rebel leader Kabila seized power in May 1997, CPJ has recorded 130 press freedom violations involving more than 200 journalists and 75 news outlets. In the capital, Kinshasa, police brutality, legal harassment, and informal detention of outspoken journalists continued with impunity.

In January, Kabila told a United Nations news service that he was unaware of his security services mistreating any journalists. Two weeks later in New York City, however, the president’s aides beat up a journalist who had accompanied Kabila to a United Nations Security Council meeting on the DRC. That journalist was Modeste Mutinga, winner of a 2000 CPJ International Press Freedom Award.

Zimbabwean, Angolan, and Namibian troops allied with the DRC government also violated journalists’ rights. On August 12 in the town of Kananga, for example, Zimbabwean soldiers detained a television crew from the private station Kasai Horizons Radio-Television (KHRT) and forced its members to roll around in the dust while singing military anthems.

Press offenses punishable by death include betrayal of the state in time of war, insulting the army, demoralizing the nation, and disseminating false news. Article 78 of the 1996 Press Law explicitly requires the media to back the government’s war efforts. Ironically, this law was passed under the government of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, which was then fighting rebels led by Kabila. The Court of Military Order (COM), whose rulings cannot be appealed, tries journalists charged with any of these offenses.

Four Congolese journalists were in jail at year’s end. Freddy Loseke Lisumbu La Yayenga, publisher of the now-defunct La Libre Afrique, had been in jail for more than a year and was serving a three-year term for reporting on an alleged coup plot against Kabila. He was held at the Kokolo detention center, a squalid facility whose inmates have been described as “walking skeletons” by international human rights groups. On January 4, 2001, Kabila pardoned Loseke and released him from detention.

That same day, Kabila also pardoned Emile-Aimé Kakese Vinalu of Le Carrousel and Jean-Pierre Ekanga Mukuna of La Tribune de la Nation. The two journalists had been in jail since September 12, when they received two-year sentences for “demoralizing the Army” and making “veiled calls to opposition leaders and sympathizers to rebel.” (A fourth journalist, Pierre-Sosthène Kambidi, a correspondent for the private Kinshasa daily Le Phare in the western province of Kasai, was arrested December 31 and remained in prison at the start of 2001.)

In exchange for Kabila’s pardon, the state television and radio network announced, the freed journalists were expected to refrain from criticizing the regime. The official Radio-Télé National du Congo also warned that journalists who insisted on breaking the rules could expect even harsher punishments, with no hope of either a pardon or an amnesty.

There were also reports that government agents, posing as graphic designers or Webmasters, had infiltrated the offices of several DRC publications, including some that were known to support the government. In early October, for instance, JED reported the unmasking of Sosthène Baniwesize, an agent of the Military Detection of Anti-Patriotic Activities Unit (DEMIAP), who had been working undercover as a computer technician at the daily L’Avenir. Baniwesize’s identity became known after he was found with computer disks containing e-mail messages to the Army’s Seventh Military Region command, according to JED. (CPJ was unable to confirm this report independently.)

Other Kabila government efforts were more heavy-handed. On April 30, the authorities assigned two state security officers to screen all publications printed at Recto Verso, which handles most of Kinshasa’s independent newspapers and magazines, for anti-government material. On July 11, armed security agents raided the offices of the Kinshasa weekly Vision and seized all its computers, printers, and diskettes. No explanation was offered for the seizure, and a week passed before the paper could recover its property.

Given that the vast majority of DRC citizens are poor and illiterate, newspapers cannot print more than a few thousand copies each. In 2000, accordingly, the Kabila regime cracked down with unprecedented fervor on both private and state broadcasters.

On March 11, police raided the offices of the popular private television station RTKM and told baffled personnel that the station had been nationalized in accordance with an order issued four days earlier by the Office of Ill-Acquired Goods (OBMA). The station’s owner was accused of misappropriating state funds during his tenure as a government minister under the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. RTKM did not come back on the air until October 31, about a month after the government appointed new station management and ordered that at least three hours of programming a day be dedicated to war propaganda.

On September 14, Information Minister Dominique Sakombi banned 10 radio and television stations for alleged irregularities ranging from incomplete or missing registration files to tax arrears. Congolese journalists told CPJ, however, that the authorities closed the stations to punish them for failing to follow government content guidelines. Most of the 10 stations resumed broadcasting a few weeks later, although the government nationalized three of them “until the end of the war.” These were Canal Kin 1 and Canal Kin 2, both owned by Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the rebel Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), and Radio Malebo. An official statement later charged that the stations owed back taxes and had been purchased with embezzled public funds.

In mid-January, 2001, a disgruntled presidential bodyguard assassinated Kabila. The late president’s son, Maj. Gen. Joseph Kabila, succeeded him. There was little hope that this changing of the family guard would improve conditions for the DRC’s embattled press in 2001.

Norbert Tambwe, La Tempète des Tropiques

Tambwe, a journalist with the private Kinshasa newspaper La Tempète des Tropiques, received a summons to appear before Commander Raus Chalwe Ngwashi, head of the Special Services branch of the Congolese National Police, after a January 21 story Tambwe wrote on the deaths of two presidential motorcyclists.

In his article, Tambwe alleged that the accident that killed the two men was caused by their own reckless speeding on a busy thoroughfare of the capital, Kinshasa. He also charged that presidential motorcyclists were responsible for a great number of deadly accidents and advised them to abide by traffic regulations like most other citizens.

Tambwe did not obey the summons. Some weeks later, police appeared to have given up on the case.

Lumbana Kapasa, Radio-Television Kin-Malebo

Four armed men walked into the offices of the private Kinshasa broadcaster Radio-Television Kin Malebo (RTKM) and arrested Kapasa, the station’s director of programming. They did not have a warrant, nor did they offer any explanation for their actions.

The four men drove Kapasa to the headquarters of the Congolese secret service. There he was told that his arrest had been ordered by the police commissioner, who was apparently upset that RTKM interrupted its broadcast of an Africa Cup soccer match to air a music video of Congolese pop star Kofi Olomide gyrating with several scantily dressed female dancers.

Kapasa was released six hours later after being warned against further disruptions of televised soccer games.

Nicaise Kibel Bel’Oka, Les Coulisses

Kibel Bel’Oka, publisher of the private Goma newspaper Les Coulisses, was threatened with death by Joseph Mdumbi, the interior minister of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), the Rwanda-backed rebel movement that controls Congo’s North Kivu Province.

Mdumbi was angered by Kibel Bel’Oka’s article on illegal land seizures by members of the RCD. The article alleged that Mdumbi presided over a group of rebel officials who systematically seized land from citizens and then sold it at below-market prices.

“I will kill you with my own hands,” Mdumbi reportedly warned the journalist during a kangaroo trial held at RCD headquarters in Goma.

Kibel Bel’Oka was soon released, but rebel officials summoned him again “court” on February 21 in connection with another article with his byline in Les Coulisses, headlined “For US$50 Million, RCD Mortgages the Congo for Sixty Years.” The article reported on an agreement between the RCD and Van Arthur Brink, a controversial Grenada-based financier who proposed an asset-backed currency for the RCD-occupied zone of the Congo.

During the second hearing, Kibel Bel’Oka was urged to reveal the sources for this article, but he refused. He was charged with seditious libel and publishing false news and released pending further investigation.

Ntumba Lumembu, Umoja

Lumembu, a journalist with the private weekly Umoja, was arrested at his Kinshasa home by four armed men who claimed to be agents of the Congolese police. When the journalist demanded to see a warrant, two of the men left and reappeared moments later with a written order to detain him for “refusal to testify.”

Lumembu was then taken into police custody and extensively questioned about an article in the February 15 issue of Umoja. Headlined “Tshisekedi Escapes Death,” the story implied that a group of secret service agents loyal to President Laurent-Désiré Kabila were responsible for an unsuccessful attempt to murder opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

After several hours in detention, Lumembu was released when police realized he had not written the article.

Radio Television Kin Malebo

Escorted by armed policemen and waving a warrant issued by Justice Minister Mwenze Kongolo, agents from the Bureau for Illegally Acquired Goods (OBMA), a government auditing agency, walked into the offices of the private broadcaster Radio Television Kin Malebo (RTKM) and announced its seizure by the state.

The OBMA agents made an inventory of RTKM’s property, including broadcast equipment and furniture, and then stationed armed policemen in front of the station’s headquarters in Kinshasa-Gombe as well as at its studios in Kinshasa-Ngaliema.

The authorities did not attempt to justify their decision to seize RTKM, which continued to air its regular programming. On March 13, OBMA director Seraphin Kitunga confirmed the “nationalization” of RTKM but added that he did not know why the station had been seized.

On March 17, the police left RTKM premises without explanation. At year’s end, it was still unclear whether RTKM was indeed nationalized.

This raid marked the Congolese government’s second attempt to seize RTKM. The first attempt came in May 1997, days after Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s rebels took over Kinshasa and forced long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko into exile.

Nyembo Kimuni Donatien, La Tribune

Kimuni, a reporter with the private weekly La Tribune, was jailed for more than a month in the southern town of Lubumbashi.

Kimuni’s arrest followed a March 10 La Tribune article in which the journalist referred to the Katanga provincial branch of the Congolese National Intelligence Agency (ANR) as “a beacon of terror, harassment, and reprisals.”

Kimuni was charged with defamation and contempt of court. On March 18, local human rights groups reported, he was taken to the Lubumbashi public prosecutor’s office and questioned for several hours. Kimuni was later driven to the Kasapa Central Prison, where he remained in detention until April 18.

He was then released on US$222 bail, on condition that he not travel outside Lubumbashi, where he occasionally publishes a newsletter called Le Liberateur Ujamaa.

Jean-Bruno Kadima, Umoja
Jose Moukanda Ntumba, Umoja

Police arrested Kadima, a reporter for the private weekly Umoja, and Ntumba, an Umoja technician, at the paper’s offices. They were locked up in the cells of the National Information Agency (ANR) in Kinshasa.

Sources in Kinshasa told CPJ that the arrests might have been related to an April 4 Umoja article entitled “The Eight First Articles of the Lemora Agreement.” This agreement was signed on October 23, 1996, by the founding members of the Alliance des Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation (AFDL), the armed movement that later overthrew the dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Umoja called the Lemura Agreement a blueprint for the partition of the DRC among neighboring countries whose governments supported Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s insurrection against President Mobutu.

Kadima and Ntumba were released from detention on May 3.

Le Potentiel
Modeste Mutinga, Le Potentiel

The independent Kinshasa daily Le Potentiel reported that its editor, Mutinga, had received four threatening calls on April 29 from unidentified individuals who lashed out at what they called the paper’s biased editorial line.

Two women among the callers told the editor that there would be severe repercussions if the paper did not change its editorial policy.

Le Potentiel also reported that on April 30, a group of state security officers visited Recto Verso, the printing company that produces Le Potentiel. The officers claimed that they had orders to examine all publications printed at Recto Verso before they could be sent to newsstands.

In November CPJ honored Mutinga with its International Press Freedom award.

Huit Mulongo, Mosaique

Mulongo, editor of the private Kinshasa magazine Mosaique, was arrested at his office by agents of the Rapid Intervention Police (PIR).

According to his colleagues at Mosaique, the cause of the arrest may have been an article by Mulongo in the previous issue entitled “Kabila Escapes Bulabakat Prison.” The piece alleged that President Laurent-Désiré Kabila had been arrested and detained in the town of Bulabakat in the days when he was still a local warlord.

Mulongo was held for one day at an undisclosed location, and then released without charge.

MAY 25
Nicaise Kibel Bel’Oka, Les Coulisses

Accompanied by Rwandan soldiers, rebels from the Rally for a Democratic Congo (RCD) arrested Kibel Bel’Oka at the offices of Les Coulisses, the weekly newspaper that he publishes in Goma, and held him for over a month. They also seized a computer and telephone handsets.

Sources in Goma suggested that his detention may have been connected to comments about press freedom in rebel-controlled areas that he made during an interview with the Voice of America radio network.

During the interview, Kibel Bel’Oka also argued that President Laurent-Désiré Kabila could not be ignored in any new RCD political order. On June 28, the journalist was found with minor injuries near the stronghold of another rebel organization that had been at odds with the RCD.

Jean Kenge Mukengeshayi, Le Phare

Mukengeshayi, editor of the Kinshasa daily Le Phare, was arrested at his office by two men dressed in plain clothes who said they were agents of the Police Special Services Unit. They did not have a warrant.

Hours before the arrest, Special Services Unit head Raus Chalwe Ngwashi called the paper’s office and asked to speak with an executive. According to sources in Kinshasa, the arrest was in connection with a June 7 story by assistant editor Tshivis Tshivuadi, entitled “The Country at the Mercy of Mafiosi.” The story claimed that President Laurent-Desiré Kabila was mismanaging the DRC’s huge diamond resources.

Two intelligence officers interrogated Mukengeshayi for three hours at a local police station. He was released after the agents realized he had not written the article in question.

Richard Nsamba Olangi, Le Messager Africain

Olangi, publisher of the Kinshasa weekly Le Messager Africain, was arrested for defamation, brought to court, and finally cleared of all charges.

During a June 12 hearing at the Kinshasa-Gombe public prosecutor’s office, Olangi was accused of defaming Charles Okoto, a diamond company director who once served as governor of Eastern Kasai Province. Two days later, Olangi was taken to the Kinshasa Penitentiary and Reeducation Center.

The charges against the publisher stemmed from April articles in Le Messager Africain alleging that Okoto had brought a number of uninvited individuals to a meeting between President Laurent-Désiré Kabila and a delegation of traditional chiefs earlier in the month.

On June 16, the Kinshasa-Gombe High Court held a hearing in the prison facility where Olangi faced charges of distributing false information, insulting authorities, and making harmful statements. The journalist’s lawyer contended that the accusations were groundless and asked the court to release his client. Olangi was finally released on July 7, after the charges against him had been dropped.

Emile-Aimé Kakese Vinalu, Le Carrousel
Richard Nsamba Olangi, Le Messager Africain
Jean-Pierre Ekanga Mukuna, La Tribune de la Nation

Police in Kinshasa arrested two weekly newspaper editors: Mukuna of La Tribune de la Nation (on June 23) and Vinalu of Le Carrousel (on June 24). Both journalists were charged with high treason and faced the death penalty if convicted.

The case arose from two articles that Vinalu published in the June 20 edition of Le Carrousel. One piece charged that free speech was impossible in the DRC because “to dare speak one’s mind is a sure guarantee that one will be accused of endangering state security.”

The other article analyzed a public confrontation between President Laurent-Désiré Kabila and his minister for mineral resources, Victor M’Poyo, who was subsequently removed from his post.

On July 26, the military prosecutor, Lieut.-Col. Charles Alamba Mungako, told local reporters that Vinalu’s articles had “demoralized the army,” describing them as “veiled calls to opposition leaders and sympathizers to rebel against the powers that be.” The military prosecutor announced that Vinalu would be tried in a military court because his alleged offenses amounted to “high treason,” an offense punishable by death.

Mukuna, meanwhile, was arrested for refusing to reveal Vinalu’s home address. He was released on July 10, but then rearrested on August 17, when he appeared in court to testify on Vinalu’s behalf. Mukuna was also charged with high treason and jailed at Kinshasa’s Penitentiary and Re-education Center.

Another local journalist, editor Richard Nsamba Olangi of Le Messager Africain, was arrested on August 15 when he arrived in court to testify on behalf of Vinalu. He was detained for two weeks without charge and then released on bail.

Defense lawyer Katako Okende was also jailed for alleged complicity with Vinalu and Mukuna and was charged with “betrayal of the state in times of war,” a capital offense, for possession of allegedly anti-government newspapers.

On September 12, Vinalu and Mukuna were each sentenced to two years in prison. Olangi received a six-month jail sentence plus an additional six-month suspended sentence. The Court of Military Order (COM), whose rulings cannot be appealed, also ordered some of Olangi’s property confiscated. Fearing for his life, Olangi escaped to a neighboring country and applied for political asylum.

Both Vinalu and Mukuna were released from jail on January 4, 2001, after they were pardoned by President Kabila.

Caroline Pare, BBC
Pierre Mombele, BBC

Pare, a London-based television producer for the BBC, and Mombele, her Congolese assistant, were arrested near the suburban home of Jonas Munkamba, former head of the state mining company MIBA.

DRC officials said the journalist and her assistant were detained after a routine identification check revealed that they lacked proper accreditation to travel outside the capital.

Pare, who was researching a documentary about former Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba, wanted to interview Munkamba, who is said to have been aboard the airplane that flew Lumumba to the southern city of Lubumbashi, where he was assassinated in 1961.

Pare was expelled from the DRC on June 27. Mombele was released from detention that same day.

Pierre-Sosthene Kambidi, Le Phare

Kambidi, a correspondent for the Kinshasa daily Le Phare in Tshikapa (Western Kasai Province), was arrested and jailed by local officers of the National Information Agency (ANR). The reasons for Kambidi’s arrest are murky, although some local journalists pointed to the fact that Le Phare is an opposition newspaper.

Kambidi was detained without charge for more than a month. He was released from prison on September 28, according to his colleagues at Le Phare.

Franck Baku Fuita, La Référence Plus
Franck Ngyke, La Référence Plus

Baku, editor of La Référence Plus, was arrested and detained for three weeks, apparently because of official objections to his reporting. After being served with a provisional arrest warrant by an agent of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, he was taken to a jail in Kinshasa-Gombe. The next day, Baku was charged with insulting the judiciary and violating the Press Law. These charges arose from Baku’s August 31 article alleging irregularities in a divorce case involving an official of the former Mobutu Sese Seko regime. On September 4, Baku was transferred to the Kinshasa Penitentiary and Reeducation Center.

Ngyke, political editor of La Référence Plus, was arrested on September 3 by agents of the National Information Agency, who detained him at their headquarters in Kinshasa-Gombe. Though CPJ was unable to confirm the exact reason for his arrest, sources in the DRC believed it was in connection with an advertisement in the paper that called for an end to the civil war. Ngyke was released on September 8.

On September 12, Baku appeared before the Peace Court of Kinshasa-Ngaliema. His lawyer argued that Baku’s alleged crime was committed outside the jurisdiction of the court. The lawyer also demanded the release of his client on grounds that Baku had not appeared in court within five days of his arrest, as DRC law requires.

Baku was released from prison on September 22. The release order stated that “the motives for the journalist’s arrest no longer exist.”

Jean-Paul Ramazani Kulimushi, Radiodiffusion Television Nationale du Congo

Kulimushi, the head of the Goma (North Kivu) branch of the official Radiodiffusion Television Nationale du Congo (RTNC), was arrested by Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) rebels and held incommunicado. The RCD had been fighting the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s Kinshasa-based government since 1998, with the help of Rwanda and Uganda. Local press freedom groups say that RCD officials were angered by a broadcast in which Kulimushi criticized the conduct of certain RCD soldiers.

The commentary was broadcast on RTNC-Goma, which is under rebel control. Kulimishi eventually cleared himself from the charge of “broadcasting information likely to cause confusion in the minds of the people.”He was released from detention on November 12.

Jean-Luc Kinyongo Saleh, Vision

In the early hours of November 8, National Information Agency (ANR) agents arrested Saleh, publisher of the Kinshasa biweekly Vision, at his home and took him to ANR headquarters in downtown Kinshasa.

Saleh was released a few hours later, after being forced to sign a document in which he promised to stop publishing articles that “demoralized” soldiers at the front and “disturbed” members of the government.

Vision had been a constant critic of the Kinshasa regime and its unpopular war against DRC rebels supported by Rwanda and Uganda.

Feu d’Or Bonsange Ifonge, L’Alarme
Arisote Dola, L’Alarme
Kala Bokango, L’Alarme
Guy Batshika, L’Alarme

In the early hours of November 11, plainclothes police officers arrested Ifonge, a journalist with the thrice-weekly Kinshasa publication L’Alarme, at the Place Victoire in Kinshasa. At the time of his arrest, Ifonge was distributing that week’s edition of L’Alarme.

The journalist was detained without charge at the Kinshasa Penitentiary and Reeducation Center. His colleagues Dola, Bokango, and Batshika, also present at the scene, were able to escape and remained in hiding until Ifonge’s release a month later.

The cause of Ifonge’s arrest was unclear. Local journalists said it could have been connected with an article by Dola. Headlined “Mbandaka Is Burning,” the article contended that the population of Mbandaka, a small, government-controlled town in Equateur Province, was about to be attacked by rebel troops of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC). Dola also wrote that the population had abandoned the town and sought refuge in the surrounding bush.

Ifonge could also have been arrested because of another article in the same edition of L’Alarme, in which he suggested that veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi would make a better leader than President Laurent-Desiré Kabila.

On December 2, the Court of Military Order finally charged Ifonge with “threatening the internal security of the state.” He was released 10 days later, on December 12, on condition that he report weekly to the public prosecutor’s office.

Pierre-Sosthene Kambidi, Le Phare

Kambidi, a correspondent for the Kinshasa daily Le Phare in the town of Tshikapa (West Kasaï Province), was arrested and detained at the local branch of the National Information Agency (ANR).

The order to arrest the journalist came from Tshikapa’s chief administrator, Kalemba Tshibuabua, according to the DRC press freedom organization Journaliste en Danger (JED). Tshibuabua was apparently angered by Kambidi’s critical articles in Le Phare and by his alleged links with the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS).