Kidnapped journalist released in Congolese war zone

New York, November 7, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes today’s release of a Belgian journalist, his interpreter, and his driver, who were kidnapped on Tuesday while reporting on the war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. CPJ remains concerned about the safety of journalists in the rebel-held town of Kiwanja, where the only radio station has been ransacked.

Belgian journalist Thomas Scheen, his Congolese interpreter, Charles Ntiricya, and his driver, Roger Bangue, were released today, three days after pro-government Maï-Maï militiamen kidnapped them on Tuesday in Kiwanja, according to local journalists and international news reports. Scheen, 43, a correspondent for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, had been covering the security situation in Kiwanja, according to Ntiricya, who spoke to CPJ today shortly after his release. The newspaper confirmed the release in a statement.

“We are relieved that our colleagues have been safely released amid the terrible fighting in eastern DRC,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “All sides in this conflict as well as U.N. peacekeepers must ensure the safety of journalists who are risking their lives to report on this tragedy.”

An estimated 250,000 civilians have fled their homes since fighting began in September between the Congolese army and the rebel National Congress for the Defense of the People. The conflict is fueled by ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, stemming from the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Groups are also struggling over the rights to rich mineral deposits, particularly coltan, which is used in mobile phones.

Recounting his ordeal to CPJ, Ntiricya said armed Maï-Maï militiamen stopped them on the road from Kiwanja to the provincial capital, Goma, seized their valuables, and tied them up before taking them to a militia commander. After questioning, the commander allegedly demanded US$800 payment to let them go. Unable to pay the amount, the men were then led 25 miles (40 kilometers) on foot to a senior Maï-Maï political figure who handed them over to the Congolese army. They were picked up by U.N. peacekeepers this afternoon. Ntiricha added that besides feeling fatigued, the three men were in good health. Their car and valuables remain missing.

Meanwhile, journalists Alfred Nzonzo Bitwahiki and Faustin Tawite of Radio Communautaire Ushirika in Kiwanja–who were reported missing or dead between Tuesday and Thursday by U.N. Radio Okapi and Human Rights Watch–were in the protective custody of U.N. peacekeepers, according to Tuverekwtvyo Muhundo, the local representative of Congolese press freedom group Journaliste En Danger. A rebel assault on Kiwanja forced the station to suspend its programs and close down on Tuesday afternoon, Director Jean-Baptiste Kambale told CPJ. Staffers dispersed and fled the town during chaotic fighting, but rebels looted the station, the only broadcaster in Kiwanja, he said. It had been airing government press statements and interviews with officials about the security situation, according to him.

Four other stations in the war zone have preemptively shut down, fearing looting, according to Kambale, who also runs the Network of Radio and Television Broadcasters of eastern Congo known as RATECO. Dorika FM, a station in Nyamilima near the endangered mountain gorilla area, Virunga Park, returned to the air today to broadcast public service announcements about missing people, he said.