Police officers inspect the scene of a bombed explosion in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo in December 2021. On May 18, 2022, the head of the National Intelligence Agency detained three journalists and ordered his officers to strip and beat them. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)

Three Congolese radio journalists stripped, beaten by intelligence agents

Kinshasa, May 25, 2022 — Authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo must hold to account those responsible for stripping and beating journalists Cédar Sabiti, Samuel Matela, and Junior Batu Ngole while they were detained, and ensure that the press can report and comment on matters of public interest freely and without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

Sabiti and Matela told CPJ by phone that on May 18, Freddy Sombo, the head of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) in the northwestern province of Tshuapa, summoned Sabiti, a reporter for the privately owned Radio Tshuapa for Development, Matela, a reporter for privately owned Radio Liberal FM, and Ngole, a reporter for privately owned Radio Boende, for questioning at ANR’s provincial headquarters in the capital, Boende. When the journalists arrived, Sombo yelled at them and accused them of tarnishing ANR’s image during a May 17 radio program hosted by Matela called “Let’s Talk About Education,” Sabiti told CPJ.

During the program, Sabiti and Ngole were critical of alleged irregularities during last year’s final examinations, which determine if students can go to college, and the prohibitive costs of those exams, Sabiti told CPJ. The three journalists denounced the alleged practice of some Boende schools in bribing teachers, invigilators, police, and intelligence officers to ignore cheating, and opined that the issues would be repeated this year.

Ngole told CPJ that Sombo then ordered his agents to strip the journalists and lock them in the ANR jail cells, where six officers beat the journalists with truncheons and deprived them of food for the rest of the day. Sombo did not answer CPJ’s calls for comment.

“It is intolerable that radio journalists Cédar Sabiti, Samuel Matela, and Junior Batu Ngole were detained and subjected to cruel and degrading punishment by intelligence officers, who acted violently and unlawfully because their boss felt aggrieved about the journalists’ commentary on a matter of enormous public interest,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in New York. “The Congolese government must act swiftly to stop the abuse of power by the country’s intelligence agents, who appear to have become a law unto themselves. They should begin by disciplining and prosecuting these officers as a deterrent to others.”

After a night in custody, the journalists were taken to the Boende High Court on May 19, where prosecutor Norbert Mampalanga interviewed them without a lawyer, said Sabiti. The prosecutor then ordered their unconditional release, as they had not committed an offense, according to Sabiti.

Matela was admitted to a local health clinic on May 19 and was treated for three days because of the beatings he endured in custody, according to Sabiti, who added that Tshuapa Governor Pancrace Boongo visited the clinic on May 21 to inquire about Matela’s health. Boongo did not answer CPJ’s calls for comment. CPJ could not confirm the details of Matela’s injuries.

Gaby Kuba, national president of the National Press Union of the Congo, tweeted his condemnation of the assault on the journalists.

Tharcisse Kasongo Mwema, spokesperson for Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, told CPJ by phone that he was out of the country and that the president was unaware of the journalists’ alleged mistreatment by ANR agents. CPJ’s repeated calls to Mampalanga and Matrick Muyaya, a spokesperson for the Minister of Communication and Media, were not answered.