It’s not good to criticize Congo-Brazzaville’s regime

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the arbitrary detention of two Italian journalists while in Congo-Brazzaville (also known as Republic of Congo) to investigate an alleged corruption ring involving relatives of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Luca Chianca and Paolo Palermo, who work for “Reports,” an investigative programme broadcast by the Italian TV channel RAI 3, were arrested by plainclothes police in Pointe-Noire, the country’s second largest city, on 15 March and were held arbitrarily for three days and two nights.

The Directorate for Territorial Surveillance (DST) detained them on the grounds that they did not have press visas.They were held in a two-meter-square room furnished with nothing more than a chair, and had no means of communicating with the outside world.

“No journalist, whether Congolese or foreign, should be mistreated in this way by the authorities,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Their use of such intimidatory methods with foreign reporters speaks volumes about their attitude to Congolese journalists, who have to choose between censoring themselves or being persecuted.”

Chianca and Palermo were arrested two days after arriving in Pointe-Noire with the aim of interviewing Fabio Ottonello, an influential Italian business who is married to the president’s daughter.

Ottonello is said to have provided a private plane that transported bribes to Switzerland as part of a network of corruption involving the Italian company ENI and Nigerian officials that is currently the subject of court proceedings in Milan.

Shortly before their arrest, Chianca and Palermo warned their editor that they believed they were in danger. They tried to transmit their report, but communications had been disconnected in the Pointe Noire region.

Italian diplomats finally obtained their release on 20 March in exchange for the confiscation of their electronic equipment and deletion of all their data. They returned to Rome yesterday.


Journalists in the regime’s sights

Not all journalists are so lucky in Congo-Brazzaville. Ghys Fortuné Bemba, the publisher of the newspaper Talassa, has been held since 11 January without being brought before a court. Officially he is charged with complicity with a government opponent and encouraging violence in the southern department of Pool.

He was previously arrested in October 2015 over an article accusing President Sassou Nguesso of using mercenaries to attack the new constitution’s opponents. In 2014, bureaucratic pretexts were used to force his media company, Talassa, to close after an article pointed out that the number of registered voters in northern regions that support the president had increased much more than in the south, and by a proportion that could not reasonably be ascribed to population growth.

Except for the five years from 1992 to 1997, Sassou Nguesso has been Congo-Brazzaville’s president since 1979. During his 33 years in office, he has imposed an environment that has been increasingly hostile to human rights and freedom of information in particular.

He had the constitution amended in 2015 in order to be able to run for a third term. All Internet communications were cut throughout the country during the presidential election in March 2016. Journalists are constantly exposed to censorship and intimidation and are often arrested arbitrarily,

Congo-Brazzaville is ranked 115th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.