New York, February 27, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns a three-month prison sentence and heavy damages handed down by a court in the southeastern city of Boma against a journalist over a story alleging corruption by the municipal treasury.
Popol Ntula Vita, a correspondent at the private weekly La Cité Africaine in the capital Kinshasa, was sentenced on February 16 to three months in prison and damages of US$6,250 for allegedly defaming four Boma municipal treasury officials, Judge Monseigne Baba told CPJ. The charges stem from a January 6 article alleging that the officials had overcharged fees for vehicle license plates and pocketed the difference, according to local press freedom group Journaliste En Danger (JED). Fearing arrest, Vita went into hiding, but an appeal will be filed in the coming days, defense lawyer Willy Minoko told CPJ.
“Criminalizing critical reporting undermines democratic principles,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the appeals court to overturn the criminal conviction of Popol Ntula Vita and urge authorities to decriminalize defamation.”
The ruling follows the public prosecutor’s request for a 12-month prison sentence over “defamation and damaging allegations” charges brought by municipal treasurer Thomas Ndomasi, according to JED. The court proceedings were fair, but the possibility of judicial interference hung over the trial because of the influence of the plaintiff, Minoko said. Vita stands by his story, he told CPJ from an undisclosed location.
JED has been active in urging Congolese lawmakers to decriminalize press offences. The country’s new government was announced earlier this month, several weeks after historic presidential and general elections, according to international news reports. DRC’s treasury, known by its French acronym as DGI, has suffered from corruption allegations and scandals in recent years. In October 2005, several high-ranking officials were arrested for allegedly embezzling millions of US dollars, according to Agence France-Presse.