Robert Leger, SPJ President, 417/836-1113 or email@example.com
Maria Trombly, SPJ International Journalism Committee Chair, 212/931-0152 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists urges the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to overturn the five-year prison sentence issued earlier this month to Donatien Nyembo Kimuni, a correspondent for the Kinshasa, DRC-based weekly La Tribune. SPJ says the charge issued against him, defamation, does not warrant such a harsh sentence, and especially now, a week after the new power-sharing government was sworn in, it is urgent that the DRC sends a clear message about the importance of free speech.
“As the new government transitions the nation toward a peaceful future, its actions will speak far louder than its words,” said SPJ President Robert Leger. “Adhering to the DRC and international guarantees of free speech and human rights will speak volumes.”
In a June 5 La Tribune opinion column, “Congo Mineral: Workers Are Paid Poorly and Exploited,” Nyembo Kimuni charged that toxic chemicals and unsafe working conditions at Congo Mineral are killing miners. He said the company ignores the risks for the sake of higher profits and that government officials are indifferent to the situation. He told Journaliste en Danger (JED), a Kinshasa-based media rights watchdog, that his information came from a report by the government-run mining firm Gecamines and interviews with local miners. The article was followed by a response from Congo Mineral, which ran in a later edition of La Tribune.
Despite the published response, Congo Mineral filed a defamation charge against Nyembo Kimuni. On July 11, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison even though he was unable to attend the court hearing in Likasi, 120 km from his home in Lubumbashi. Nyembo Kimuni said he and his lawyer were blocked from the hearing because of road barricades that were set up after fighting broke out between students and soldiers at the University of Lubumbashi. “Bullets were flying everywhere,” he told JED. He said he can’t afford an appeal, and is now in hiding, according to JED President D. M’Baya Tshimanga.
This is not the first time Nyembo Kimuni was arrested for his writings. In March 2000, he was charged with defamation and imprisoned in Lubumbashi because of a story he wrote criticizing then-President Laurent Kabila’s brother, who was the provincial director of the ANR (the national intelligence agency) until his death earlier that year. Nyembo Kimuni was held for one month, then released on US $222 bail, paid for by JED.
Other DRC journalists have been abducted, beaten and imprisoned for their work, according to Tshimanga. More than 260 journalists have been jailed since May 1997, when Laurent Kabila overthrew the government of then-President Mobutu Sese Seko, and 21 journalists have been challenged or imprisoned this year alone, he said.
Last week, on the DRC’s annual national day of the press, JED issued an open letter to the transitional government asking for more cooperation with and protection for journalists. It detailed the grim working conditions there, citing several high-profile cases of media abuse, including the disappearance of Akite Kisembo, an Agence France Presse translator believed to have been abducted and assassinated by a militia group in Bunia after interviewing locals. The letter went on to praise the government for several positive steps it has taken to promote free speech, and it offered specific recommendations on how the different agencies can further the cause.
“There are many problems of journalists in DRC,” said Tshimanga. “We have worked for the defense of the freedom of the press in [DRC] for five years. But this work, we do it under [difficult] political and economic conditions. More than one once, our members [were] stopped, tortured, and we live sometimes in clandestinity to escape from the arrests.”
SPJ has asked President Joseph Kabila and Aubrey Hooks, the U.S. ambassador to the DRC, to investigate Nyembo Kimuni’s arrest and work for his freedom. It has also issued its support of Journaliste en Danger’s plea for the government to help put an end to the hostile climate for journalists in the nation.
“Freedom of expression is an inherent human right, and one that’s critical to the stability of a nation,” said Maria Trombly, chair of the SPJ’s International Journalism Committee. “If journalists are not permitted to inform the public about situations affecting their lives and to present a diversity of voices, citizens will never gain the faith and trust of others in their society, and efforts at peace will most certainly be doomed.”
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.