President Sassou-Nguesso (AFP)
President Sassou-Nguesso (AFP)

Media harassed in Brazzaville after disputed election

New York, July 17, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the harassment of international journalists covering this week’s disputed presidential elections in Republic of Congo.

On Wednesday, police smashed the camera of videographer Marlène Rabaud of France 24 while she was filming the dispersal of an opposition demonstration in the capital, Brazzaville, according to local journalists and news reports. France 24 colleague Arnaud Zajtman, who was also on the scene, told CPJ that officers shoved them and confiscated their footage.

A third journalist reporting for the BBC, Thomas Fessy, told CPJ that an officer pulled his hair until he surrendered his audio recorder. A uniformed officer searched Fessy under the direction of plainclothes police and seized a bag of equipment, including a digital camera, a mobile phone, and his notebook. 

Attempts to retrieve their property have been unsuccessful, the three journalists said.

Speaking to CPJ on Thursday, national police spokesman Col. Jean Aïve Alakoua said the police had not yet reviewed the demonstration, which was sparked by the official announcement of the landslide re-election of incumbent President Denis Sassou-Nguesso amid widespread allegations of irregularities. “I have not received any complaint about this [incident],” Alakoua added.

“It’s unacceptable in a democracy that international reporters are being harassed for covering an election and its aftermath,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “We call on authorities to halt this intimidation, return seized equipment, and compensate media for any damages.” 

Security agents harassed another journalist, Catherine Ninin of Radio France Internationale, according to local journalists.

On Sunday around 1 a.m., a few hours before polls opened, a dozen security agents led by Col. Thomas Bakala Mayinda of the Congolese intelligence agency Territorial Surveillance Directorate (known by its French acronym DST) entered Ninin’s hotel and demanded to see the journalist, supposedly to conduct an interview. The reception staff of the Saphir Hotel denied them access. Ninin told CPJ in an e-mail that she received a threatening phone call from a presidential aide an hour later, while two more groups of security agents besieged the hotel throughout the night. 

Separately, Zajtman also reported receiving a similar phone call in the middle of the night over his station’s reporting on poverty in Brazzaville, he told CPJ. Zajtman, Rabaud, and Fessy said they left Brazzaville’s Hippocampe Hotel after noticing that security agents were monitoring their activities.

Speaking to CPJ on Thursday, police spokesman Alakoua said he was not aware of agents’ demands to see Ninin. “She moves freely. She does her reporting as she wishes even if they don’t necessarily please everybody,” he said, adding that the police never received a complaint from her.

However, during a July 11 press conference at the presidential campaign headquarters, top officials repeatedly warned Ninin about the coverage of RFI and France 24, according to several local journalists. “Please don’t be the [Radio Télévision Libre des] Mille Collines,” presidential spokesman François Ibovi was quoted by local sources as directing to Ninin. The comment was a reference to the notorious Rwandan station that helped sparked the 1994 genocide. “We ask you to do your job. There’s not a single journalist in prison in this country. Freedom of the press is guaranteed, but don’t try to pour oil onto fire,” he was quoted as saying. The statements apparently stemmed from an RFI story reporting the opposition’s call for a boycott of the polls and a France 24 report showing an opposition and presidential rallies side by side, according to Ninin. Pro-government media also attacked Ninin in editorials, according to CPJ research.

“The harassment of our colleague Catherine Ninin reveals a climate of fear and self-censorship that local press in the Republic of Congo has endured for years,” said Tom Rhodes.