Lawsuit by Kabila lawyer threatens two Congolese journalists
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arrest of a journalist yesterday in Sud-Kivu province, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is accused of defaming former President Joseph Kabila’s lawyer. His editor was due to be questioned today. RSF has contacted the province’s governor and calls for the journalists’ unconditional release.
Joseph Kabila ceased to be president more than 18 months ago, but Congolese media are still being persecuted as they were during his 19 years in power and Kabila continues to pose a threat to them.
Justin Murhu, a reporter for deboutRDC.net, a popular news website that covers human rights-related stories in the eastern DRC, is among the latest victims. He was arrested yesterday after being summoned by a court in Sud-Kivu’s capital, Bukavu. Patrick Babwine, the site’s editor, was summoned to appear before the same court today.
The two journalists are being sued for defamation by Kabila family lawyer Jean Claude Zihalirwa over an article posted on the website on 24 August. It quoted sources as saying that Zihalirwa, accompanied by soldiers, visited people to dissuade them from testifying about their eviction from land claimed by Kabila in a locality known as Mbobero.
“There is absolutely no justification for arresting these journalists or, even less, placing them in pre-trial detention, for reporting sourced and easily verifiable facts in an article,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Covering human rights violations should not lead to imprisonment. These journalists were just doing their job and we call for their unconditional release.”
In response to a request by RSF, Sud-Kivu governor Théo Kasi said he would look into the arrests.
Hundreds of homes were demolished from 2016 to 2018 in Mbobero, leaving thousands homeless, according to New Civil Society Dynamic in DRC (NDSCI), a local human rights NGO. Two complaints were filed against Kabila in July in connection with the evictions.
“The facts reported by the website are accurate,” a person familiar with the case told RSF. “This is part of a strategy to try to intimidate the victims of the evictions. The journalists who dare to talk about this case are as rare as they are courageous.”
This is not the first time journalists have been harassed for covering the plight of those evicted from this vast area of land claimed by Kabila, who is now a senator. As RSF reported at the time, Gaël Mpoyo, the director of documentary entitled “Mbobero: might is always right,” and Franck Zongwe Lukawa, the film’s editor, had to flee their Bukavu homes after the film was released in 2018.
The DRC is ranked 150th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.