New York, May 26, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is issuing an urgent call for the acquittal of jailed journalist Patrice Booto, who awaits a verdict, expected Monday, on charges of publishing false information, offending the head of state, and “insulting the government.” The state prosecutor has asked a Kinshasa judge for a three-year jail sentence and a fine of $1,000, according to local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED).
“These charges are outrageous and do not belong in a democratic society,” said Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director. “We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Patrice Booto and his acquittal on all criminal charges.”
Booto, publisher of the thrice-weekly Le Journal and its supplement Pool Malebo, was arrested on November 2 after both newspapers published an article that claimed the government had given a large sum of money to Tanzanian education agencies while Congolese teachers were on strike for more pay. Booto has been denied bail while awaiting trial, and Congolese officials have refused requests from JED and other press freedom organizations to free him.
The National Security Court, which was overseeing Booto’s case, was dissolved in February following the passage of DRC’s new constitution in December 2005. Another Kinshasa-based court took up his case in April. The same month, Booto told JED that he was suffering from several health problems and had not received adequate medical care in prison.
Journalists reporting on corruption and human rights abuses in DRC face the constant threat of detention without due process, especially under the country’s archaic defamation and “insult” laws. Most of these cases never go to trial, making Booto’s case unusual. Attacks on the media have escalated in recent weeks, ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for July 30 (see CPJ’s May 23 alert).
“Acquitting Patrice Booto would send a reassuring message to the country’s embattled independent media and affirm the court’s impartiality at this time of political tension,” Cooper added.