Central African Republic authorities arrested journalist Landry Ulrich Nguéma Ngokpélé in October 2021. He is accused of criminal association, defamation, insult, slanderous denunciation, and complicity with the rebel group Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC).
Nguéma Ngokpélé is the publication director of the privately owned Le Quotidien de Bangui newspaper, which reports extensively on local politics, according to a local journalist familiar with the case, who requested anonymity for safety reasons. He also often shares his reporting on social media, that journalist said.
At around noon on October 4, 2021, members of the Central African Republic police and military arrested Nguéma Ngokpélé in Bangui, the capital, according to the journalist’s wife, Philomene Nseya Muteba, who visited her husband in detention and relayed information from him to CPJ via messaging app.
Nguéma Ngokpélé said he was in the courtyard of a local stadium when Harouna Douamba, the president of Aimons Notre Afrique, a local nongovernmental organization, spotted him and communicated to the military that the journalist was an accomplice of the Coalition of Patriots for Change, and informed the police of his location.
The security forces then took him to the headquarters of the Compagnie Nationale de Sécurité, a national security agency, and then to the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry, and then transferred him the same day to the local Ngaragba Central Prison, Muteba said.
In a message shared with CPJ via his wife, the journalist said he faced prosecution by investigating judge Thierry Blaise Angalaka Nzapato for alleged complicity with the Coalition of Patriots for Change, criminal association, defamation, insult, and slanderous denunciation.
CPJ was unable to confirm the basis of the complicity and criminal association allegations against Nguéma Ngokpélé. Muteba told CPJ that the journalist had no affiliation with the CPC.
CPJ reviewed court documents dated October 27, 2021, which stated that the defamation, injurious publications, and slanderous denunciation allegations stemmed from publications shared by the journalist on social media that allegedly defamed Maxime Balalou, the Central African Republic’s minister in charge of the General Secretariat of the Government, a senior administrative position in the national government, by referring to him as “a corrupt minister, manipulated by a gang of Libyan mafia,” the documents said.
The documents did not specify the exact publications allegedly shared by the journalist. One article written by Nguéma Ngokpélé, which CPJ reviewed, was titled “Minister Balalou Maxime manipulated with banknotes by a gang of Libyan mafia?”
According to the court documents, Nguéma Ngokpélé acknowledged that “this publication was made on my forum, Le Quotidien de Bangui and dispatched on a certain number of WhatsApp contacts including that of the Minister. I remember that the title was only a question.”
“I remember that I had not approached the question from a set angle,” he added. “I did not call the Minister corrupt, but it was a question.”
The local journalist who communicated with CPJ also shared other articles by Nguéma Ngokpélé that discussed diplomatic relations between the Central African Republic and Libya.
The court documents also said Nguéma Ngokpélé had been questioned without a lawyer present.
The documents show that Nguéma Ngokpélé is being investigated for allegedly violating Article 135 of the Central African Republic’s penal code, which pertains to defamation and insult of a government official. If convicted, he could face three to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 Central African francs (US$862) under that code.
If the offense is deemed to take place “in the presence” of officials other than the president, the prison term can be two to five years, and the fine increased up to 1 million Central African francs (US$1,725), the code says.
In July 2021, Vicent Namroba, the general rapporteur of the High Council of Communications, the Central African Republic’s media and communications regulator, told CPJ that under the country’s laws no journalist should go to prison for their work.
If Nguéma Ngokpélé were instead convicted of defamation under Article 145 of the country’s 2020 Law on Freedom of Communication, which CPJ reviewed, he could face a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Central African francs (US$180 to $901).
Under the Central African Republic penal code, criminal association is punishable with “forced labor.” CPJ could not determine the penalty for complicity with rebellion.
Previously, in June 2021, Nguéma Ngokpélé was arrested and held overnight in connection with a defamation complaint filed by Douamba, as CPJ documented at the time. That arrest took place while he made a required appearance at the Bangui prosecutor’s office as part of a separate defamation case from September 2020, stemming from Le Quotidien de Bangui’s coverage of alleged corruption by the country’s minister of water, forestry, hunting, and fishing.
Through his wife, the journalist told CPJ that he believed there was “an indisputable link” between his arrest over Douamba’s complaint and his present detention.
Muteba told CPJ that Nguéma Ngokpélé had a high fever while in detention.
Reached by phone and messaging app in late November, Angalaka Nzapato told CPJ that his work was “governed by the principle of professional secrecy [and] professional protocol” and he was unable to comment on the case.
Douamba acknowledged messages sent by CPJ via messaging app, but did not respond to any questions about his alleged involvement in Nguéma Ngokpélé’s arrests.
CPJ’s questions sent via messaging app and text message to Maxime Balalou and Central African Republic public prosecutor Laurent Lengande went unanswered.