Conditions for Congolese journalists improved slightly last year, even though the harsh 1996 Press Law remained on the books. In the main, President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s unity government found it expedient to tolerate frequently caustic press criticism.
On January 13, however, authorities jailed Richard Ntsana of the opposition newspaper Le Flambeau and accused him of causing “confusion about state institutions.” Le Flambeau was banned until Ntsana’s release a month later.
In late 1999, Congo’s decade-long ethnic civil war ended with a peace accord, although President Nguesso’s victorious Mbochi tribe dominates national affairs. In March and April, all-party talks were held in the capital, Brazzaville, to negotiate conditions for a constitutional democracy. The local press fractured along ethnic lines during the conflict but since then has reportedly grown more professional in its hiring and reporting practices.
The public television network, refurbished in 2000 with Chinese funding, ran smoothly, although critics charge that its pro-government bias lingers. State radio got better reviews, but the president’s personally owned Radio Liberté dominated the airwaves while avoiding sensitive topics such as corruption, HIV/AIDS, and the surging crime rate.
In June, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cautioned Congo about widespread official corruption, threatening that the poverty-ridden, oil-rich country might lose its eligibility for debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) scheme. In late August, President Nguesso reinforced this message in his Independence Day address, saying the time had come for officials to stop “siphoning public funds.”
On June 20, the Voice of America returned to Brazzaville’s FM band, four years after the U.S. government network pulled out of Congo due to the civil war. A week later, President Nguesso opened a workshop of journalists from Francophone countries and vowed to pressure parliament to pass a new law that would make defamation a civil, instead of criminal, offense. This had not happened by year’s end.
However, the transitional parliament did adopt a draft constitution that won cautious praise for its liberal provisions on press freedom.
Richard Ntsana, Le Flambeau
Ntsana, publisher of the Brazzaville weekly Le Flambeau, a pro-opposition publication, was jailed for more than two weeks over an article that appeared in his newspaper on January 8.
The article in question quoted an open letter by former president Pascal Lissouba that called on the population to mobilize to defeat the dictator, a reference to Lissouba’s successor, Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Police claimed that the article had created confusion about the state institutions.
On the evening of the arrest, authorities also suspended Le Flambeau as a protective measure in order “to guarantee public order, social peace and the respect of [state] institutions.”
Lissouba and his entire government were forced into exile in 1997 after Sassou-Nguesso staged the country’s eighth coup in three decades, declared himself head of state, and proceeded to crush his political opponents. Sassou-Nguesso had previously ruled the country for 13 years before losing Congo’s first multiparty elections in 1992.
Ntsana was released in early February, and his newspaper resumed publication in late February.