Journalist jailed in defamation case; CPJ seeks release

New York, February 2, 2005—-A reporter with the Congolese private daily La Référence Plus was taken into custody on Monday and imprisoned in the western town of Matadi on defamation charges brought by two national oil executives. The Committee to Protect Journalists today called for his immediate release.

In September, a Kinshasa court sentenced José Wakadila in absentia to 11 months in jail for defamation, and it ordered his newspaper to pay a fine equivalent to US$600, the director of Matadi central prison told the local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED).

But André Ipakala, editor of the Kinshasa-based La Référence Plus, told CPJ that neither the newspaper nor Wakadila’s lawyer had been informed of the court judgment. The newspaper has lodged an appeal, arguing that the proceeding was highly irregular.

Mvuemba Ntanda, president of DRC’s national oil refinery, SOCIR, and Jacobus Terrablanche, the refinery’s vice-president, brought the charges, according to JED. The complaint stemmed from a July 17, 2004, article that accused certain SOCIR directors of corruption and of conspiring with multinational corporations to reduce the company’s crude oil refining capabilities, according to JED. In recent years, SOCIR has served mainly as a storage facility for imported petroleum products.

JED reported at the time that Wakadila received anonymous phone calls warning him of arrest and saying he chose the “wrong target.” Ntanda is the brother of Abdoulaye Yerodia, one of DRC’s four vice presidents. Wakadila, fearing arrest, went into hiding in his hometown of Matadi. He was arrested this week while boarding a bus to Kinshasa.

“José Wakadila should not be in prison for doing his job, and we call for his immediate and unconditional release,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We also urge the DRC government to remove criminal penalties for alleged press offenses, enabling journalists to report the news without fear of being put behind bars. In this case, José Wakadila was reporting on a matter of clear public interest.”

Another La Référence Plus reporter, Deo Mulima Kampuku, was sentenced in absentia in January to four months in jail for criminal defamation. He is currently in hiding. For more information on his case see the January 18 news alert.