“Crisis” is a word often used over the last six years to describe the situation in the Central African Republic. More than 70 percent of the country remains in the control of armed groups and a fragile peace accord is being tested by recent killings in the northwest. But parts of the country under central government control, including the capital, Bangui, were considered safe for journalists and political opponents to operate. Until now.
Last weekend, two French journalists and a Central African political opponent were violently assaulted and arrested by members of the Central Office for the Repression of Banditry (OCRB) during a peaceful demonstration. The journalists, Charles Bouessel and Florent Vergnes, both work for news agency Agence France-Presse and were covering a protest organized by a new opposition movement. The Minister of Interior had banned the event two days prior.
The OCRB has a long track record of excessive use of force. Human Rights Watch extensively reported on abuses committed by OCRB members, including the killing of at least 18 people between April 2015 and March 2016, and has called on Central African authorities to consider disbanding the unit.
The journalists, whose equipment and documents were confiscated and damaged by OCRB officers, were released the same day of their arrest and charged with participating in a banned protest. These charges were later dropped. The political opponent, Joseph Bendouga, was released on June 19.
Sources tell us that Bendouga was beaten in custody and the journalists told Human Rights Watch they were beaten both at the demonstration and while exiting an OCRB vehicle. “They hit me several times, including on my face,” one of the journalists said. “I was bleeding from my nose. They struck me in my back with a Kalashnikov.”
This brazen attack on journalists doing their job is inexcusable, and it – along with the treatment of Bendouga – should be credibly investigated by authorities.
The Central African Republic is trying to right itself after devastating conflict has almost ripped the country apart. But these actions are not worthy of a government wanting to restore order and rule of law after a national crisis.