Republic of Congo TV station suspended for political footage

New York, April 10, 2009–Authorities in Republic of Congo should immediately lift their ban on private TV station Canal Bénédiction Plus (CB Plus), the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The ban was enacted in February in response to political coverage in the lead-up to presidential elections in July.

CB Plus was forced off the air on February 12 shortly after it aired footage of a 1991 national political convention that marked a transition from the one-party rule of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to a multiparty democracy, according to local news reports and local journalists. Jacques Banaganzala, the president of the national media regulator–the state-run High Council on Freedom of Communication (known by its French acronym CSLC)–told CPJ he ordered the station off the air because the footage included “violent” and “abusive” statements, including testimonies about the 1977 assassination of former President Marien Ngouabi.

 “It’s outrageous that a broadcaster should be censored for telling the people of Congo their own history,” said CPJ’s deputy director, Robert Mahoney. “We call on authorities in Brazzaville to immediately let CB Plus return to the air and allow the media to cover all sides in the lead-up to the July presidential elections.”

According to local journalists, the convention remains a sensitive issue for Sassou-Nguesso’s administration and local broadcasters rarely air excerpts. CB Plus’s program aired during a time of rising political tensions as opposition leaders pushed for another national convention with the government ahead of the elections, the journalists said. CB Plus was also the only station to air extensive coverage of the party nomination of leading presidential contender Mathias Dzon.

A day before the suspension, Director General Elith Ibourefet and Programs Director Aimé Onlaby were summoned by the Congolese intelligence agency Territorial Surveillance Directorate (known by its French acronym DST), according to local journalists. In an interview with CPJ, Col. Bayi Dikila of the DST confirmed the incident, but declined to comment further. Ibourefet and Onlaby said agents questioned them about their motive in rebroadcasting the 1991 convention, and about their links with any opposition politicians. Onlaby denied that the footage contained violence or abusive statements, adding that it had originated from state television.

Ibourefet said the station never received any written notice of the suspension, which appeared to violate legal procedure under the national press law, according to Bernard Mackiza, president of the Congolese Observatory of Media. Formal hearings and a written notice of suspension are required before the suspension of a media outlet, he said.

Banaganzala told CPJ that the council would consider lifting the ban upon reviewing the station’s application by the end of April, he said. Ibourefet said the station submitted its application more than a year ago.

In 2008, the council suspended private bimonthly Talassa for two months over a November 23 editorial critical of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.