The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on the Congolese authorities to immediately release journalist Pius Romain Rolland Ngoie and reform their country’s laws to decriminalize defamation.
On December 22, 2020, judicial police arrested Ngoie, a reporter who covers the country’s parliament for the privately owned Depeche.CD news website, while he was at the office of the National Press Union of the Congo (UNPC) in Kinshasa, the capital, according to media reports, Jonas Ngalamulume and Bazin Mpembe, two lawyers representing Ngoie, and Mimie Engumba, the director general of Depeche.CD, all of whom spoke to CPJ in phone interviews.
Authorities arrested Ngoie in response to a November 25 criminal defamation complaint filed by Albert Fabrice Puela, a local politician, who alleged that the journalist falsely accused him of demanding payment from another politician as blackmail, according to Mpembe and a copy of the complaint reviewed by CPJ.
Ngoie’s accusations were made while he appeared as a guest on the YouTube-based political news and commentary show Non à la Balkanisation TV, according to Mpembe and a post on Puela’s Facebook page, which included a copy of the broadcast. Engumba told CPJ that in addition to his work for Depeche.CD, Ngoie frequently appears on commentary shows about politics and current events.
On December 24, authorities transferred Ngoie from the custody of the public prosecutor to Makala Central Prison, also in Kinshasa, according to his lawyers. Article 74 of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s penal code, which Puela referenced in his complaint, provides for a maximum prison term of one year and/or a fine for criminal defamation convictions.
“Congolese authorities should unconditionally release journalist Pius Romain Rolland Ngoie and cease prosecuting him immediately,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “Decades after independence, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s colonial-era criminal defamation laws remain a threat to press freedom. The country’s legislation should be reformed to protect, not jail, journalists.”
Mpembe told CPJ that Ngoie and Puela reached a compromise on February 3, and that during a court hearing the same day the prosecutor requested the journalist be sentenced to two months in detention. Following another hearing today, Mpembe told CPJ by messaging app that a ruling on Ngoie’s case had been postponed, and they were waiting for a new court date.
Jasbey Zegbia Wembulu, the secretary-general of the National Press Union of the Congo, an independent trade group, told CPJ over the phone that Puela had also filed a complaint against Ngoie with the Discipline and Professional Ethics Commission, a self-regulatory media body, and it was under review when he was arrested.
On December 23, an official from the public prosecutor’s office interrogated Ngoie about his source for the blackmail allegations, which he refused to disclose, Zegbia Wembulu and the journalists’ lawyers said.
In his November 25 complaint, Puela wrote, “These extremely serious comments are false across the board and seriously undermine my reputation,” and added that excerpts of the video featuring Ngoie had “gone viral” on social media. On December 23, Puela again denied the allegations in a post on his Facebook page.
CPJ messaged Boku Mbaka, the prosecutor responsible for Ngoie’s case; the message was marked as read, but received no response.
CPJ emailed and texted Puela for comment, but he did not respond.