The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the imprisonment of Nicaise Kibel-Bel-Oka, publisher and editor of the private weekly Les Coulisses in the northeastern town of Beni, on defamation charges.
According to the local press freedom group Journaliste En Danger (JED), the charges against Kibel-Bel-Oka stem from a December 2003 Les Coulisses article that accused Jacques Kiangu, a local businessman, of failing to pay taxes on goods he imported from Uganda.
On March 2, a court in Beni sentenced Kibel-Bel-Oka to five years in prison and ordered him to pay US$2,000 in damages. The journalist was not present at the opening of the trial because he was unaware of the trial date. Shortly thereafter, a judge reduced the journalist's prison sentence to six months and increased the fine to US$5,000.
Kibel-Bel-Oka's lawyers appealed the sentence and were able to get a new trial, during which they provided evidence to substantiate the allegations made in the Les Coulisses article.
On June 19, Kibel -Bel-Oka was again sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay US$5,000 in damages. Intelligence agents arrested him that same day.
A source at Les Coulisses told CPJ that Kibel-Bel-Oka's lawyers are working on another appeal and are requesting that the journalist be freed pending the court's decision.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending our colleagues worldwide, we believe that defamation should never be a criminal offense. Kibel-Bel-Oka is the third journalist now serving a prison sentence for his work in the DRC. Albert Kassa Khamy Mouya, former publication director of the weekly newspaper Le Lauréat; and Lucien-Claude Ngongo, deputy editor of the weekly newspaper Fair Play, are also currently languishing in a Kinshasa prison. CPJ is investigating the case of a fourth journalist who may have been imprisoned for his work.
We therefore call on you to immediately release Nicaise Kibel-Bel-Oka, Albert Kassa Khamy
Mouya, and Lucien Claude Ngongo from prison. We also urge you to work toward the decriminalization of press offenses in the DRC, so that Congolese journalists will be able to practice their profession freely, without fear of imprisonment.
Thank you for your attention in these urgent matters. We await your response.