Congolese journalist under arrest; stations forced off air

New York, July 28, 2010—Authorities arrested a journalist on Tuesday on criminal defamation charges in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hours earlier, in an unrelated incident, armed men briefly forced the city’s three main opposition broadcasters off the air, according to local journalists and news reports.

Pascal Mulunda, editor of weekly Le Monitor, has been held in Kinshasa‘s Penitentiary and Reeducation Center since police officers picked him on Tuesday with an arrest warrant, defense lawyer Joel Awnze Kaloume told CPJ. No date had been set for trial and the defense was requesting Mulunda’s release on bail, Kaloume said.

The arrest was based on a June 26 defamation complaint filed by Baudouin Iheta, an official with the Mining Ministry agency Saesscam, against Le Monitor and weekly Le Baromètre after the newspapers published a June 23 story implicating Iheta in overbilling in the agency’s purchase of four vehicles, he said. Le Baromètre Editor Jeff Saïle, who has gone into hiding, told CPJ he had received anonymous phone threats.

“Congolese officials must stop trying to hide behind antiquated criminal defamation laws,” said Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “We call on authorities to free Pascal Mulunda immediately, and decriminalize defamation so that the press can fulfill its role of holding public officials to account.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Canal Congo Télévision (CCTV), Canal Kin Télévision (CKTV) and Radio Liberté Kinshasa (RALIK)—stations owned by exiled opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba—were briefly forced off the air after five armed men in plainclothes stormed Télé Consult, a private Italian telecom company and government contractor, reported local press freedom group Journaliste En Danger (JED). The premises house the broadcast equipment of all television and radio stations in Kinshasa. The men held staffers and guards at gunpoint in Kinshasa’s residential neighborhood of Binza Pigeon and forced them to cut the stations’ signal, according to JED.  

Speaking to CPJ today, Congolese Communications Minister Lambert Mendé Omalanga said police were responsible for the security of the site and that the government was investigating the incident. He told Agence France-Presse there had not been any government involvement.

The attack may have been linked to a news item on Monday evening that raised questions about the government’s management of the Congolese Office of Post and Telecommunications after workers went on strike this month over more than two years of unpaid salaries, said Stéphane Kitutu O’Léontwa, the general manager of CCTV and RALIK. Kitutu told CPJ the signal of the networks’ 11 TV and 24 radio stations was restored this afternoon.