(New York, June 9, 2006) – When U.N. Security Council members visit the Democratic Republic of Congo on June 11 and 12, they should insist that the transitional government protect the rights of journalists and human rights defenders, who have increasingly come under attack ahead of the coming elections, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.
The 11-page briefing paper, “Journalists and Human Rights Defenders Under Fire,” documents the increasing attacks, threats and detentions of journalists, human rights defenders and members of the political opposition in April and May, raising concerns about free speech in the run-up to Congo’s first round of elections set for July 30. The paper also documents the failure of the Congolese authorities to provide protection, as well as the involvement of state security services in some of the abuses.
“The elections cannot be free and fair elections if the press and civil society are too afraid to speak out or engage in legitimate political debate,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
In April and May, at least seven journalists were threatened or beaten in the course of their work. Another two were detained by security forces, and three others were arrested a few months earlier on charges of criminal defamation, an accusation frequently invoked by officials to restrict legitimate freedom of expression.
Since January, seven human rights activists, some of whom work on issues of press freedom, have received anonymous death threats. In one threat delivered by e-mail on May 20, two activists from the media watchdog Journaliste en Danger were told they should choose their coffins.
In two of the rare cases where the authorities have undertaken criminal investigations into attacks against the media and other activists, there have been no convictions as of yet. Four suspects have been arrested for the murders of journalist Franck Ngyke and his wife Hélène Mpaka, killed outside their home in Kinshasa on November 2, but the suspects have not been brought to trial. In the case of Pascal Kabungulu, a human rights defender killed in his Bukavu home by three armed men on July 31, judicial authorities began a trial, but political and military authorities interfered. The trial was moved to another court and has made little progress since.
“Security Council members have invested substantial resources in making these elections happen,” said Des Forges. “Now they must insist that the Congolese government takes immediate steps to ensure the polls take place in a climate free of fear and intimidation.”