In DRC, journalist in hiding after sentenced to prison without notice

New York, July 19, 2007—Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, convicted a journalist in secret and ordered him to report to prison immediately. He had never been told that he was charged with a crime.

On July 5, Pold Kalombo, an editor of the private weekly Le Soft International received a notice of a May 18 judgment that convicted him and his newspaper, by default, on defamation charges filed by an oil company, the director of the newspaper, Mike Mukebayi, told CPJ. The court ordered Kalombo’s immediate arrest and fined him 20,000 Congolese francs (US$45). The paper was also ordered to pay the equivalent of US$150,000 in damages, according to Mukebayi.

“It is outrageous that a journalist can be charged, tried and convicted without notice only to be handed a judgment two months later,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We call on the appeals court to overturn the criminal conviction of Pold Kalombo and urge DRC authorities to decriminalize defamation.”

Kalombo, a 10-year veteran in the local press, immediately appealed the verdict, but went into hiding, he told CPJ from an undisclosed location.

Local journalists said the charges were linked to an April 3 story that discussed allegations of corruption made in a book by a Congolese oil industry expert involving a joint venture between national oil refinery SOCIR and a private firm. Authorities announced an audit of the country’s oil sector in June, according to news reports. The central African nation, the size of Western Europe, produces between 25,000 and 30,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the reports.

Founded in 1989, Le Soft International circulates in the DRC, Rwanda, and Belgium. In February 1998, authorities seized and burned copies of a Belgian edition of the paper upon its arrival for sale in the DRC in connection with a front-page headline alleging government harassment of prominent DRC opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, according to CPJ research.

Kalombo is the second journalist to be sentenced to prison this year on defamation charges. The first was reporter Popol Ntula Vita, who was handed a three-month prison term in February.

Last month, CPJ named the DRC one of the world’s worst backsliders on press freedom.