The Democratic Republic of Congo authorities should immediately and unconditionally release the prominent journalist Stanis Bujakera, and drop the charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Bujakera has been detained since September 8, 2023, in police custody and later at Kinshasa’s Makala central prison.
The authorities charged Bujakera with fabricating and distributing a fake intelligence memo saying that Congolese military intelligence had killed a senior opposition official, Chérubin Okende. The two-page memo informed an article published in Jeune Afrique, which Bujakera did not author. On February 2, 2024, a Kinshasa court is expected to decide whether to appoint new experts to authenticate the memo.
“Nearly five months since the Congolese authorities detained Stanis Bujakera, the case increasingly appears politically motivated and part of a crackdown on the media,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop all charges against Bujakera, release him, and ensure that journalists can do their work without fear of arrest or judicial harassment.”
Bujakera, 33, is deputy director of the Congolese online news outlet Actualite.cd. He is also a reporter for Jeune Afrique, and the international news agency Reuters. He is the country’s most followed journalist on social media.
Police arrested him on September 8 at Kinshasa’s Ndjili airport as he waited to board a flight. Initially kept in police custody, he was then transferred to prison on September 14 after being charged with “spreading false information,” “forgery and the use of forged documents,” and “distributing false documents.” He could face up to 10 years in prison, according to his lawyers.
The Congolese authorities claim the intelligence memo in question is a fake document, and accused Bujakera of having shared it from his messaging applications. The memo was presented as a leaked document in the Jeune Afrique article. Bujakera was subsequently accused of having fabricated the memo and forged the signature and the National Intelligence Agency’s seal. The prosecution has so far been unable to back up these allegations in court, and the expert tasked with authenticating the memo resigned in January, citing equipment issues.
In November, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) published the findings from its investigation, which concluded the memo was authentic “even though [it] cannot pass a judgment on the veracity of its content.” A few weeks later, the investigative Congo Hold-Up media consortium’s investigation exposed serious inconsistencies in the prosecution’s claims. They had claimed that Bujakera received the memo through a Telegram account and was the first person to share it on WhatsApp. The media consortium reported that both social media companies, however, confirmed to them that it was not possible to trace the original sender of a message and that it was therefore impossible to reach such a conclusion, from a technical perspective.
On January 12, during the last court hearing, it was also revealed that the signatures presented by the National Intelligence Agency and the prosecution were different, further weakening the prosecution’s argument in trying to prove the memo was forged.
“How can one explain that the public prosecutor presented a specimen signature claiming it comes from the National Intelligence Agency, while the general administrator of the same institution has filed a totally different one?” Patient Ligodi, journalist and director of Actualité.cd, told Human Rights Watch. “Who, between the two parties, is not telling the truth? We know that Bujakera did not produce this document. They know it too, but they have decided to keep him in detention, in defiance of justice and the truth.”
The apparently flawed case against Bujakera case revolves around the July 12, 2023 disappearance of Okende, a member of parliament and spokesman for the opposition party Ensemble pour la République. He was found dead with gunshot wounds in his car in Kinshasa the next day. While the government denounced the “assassination” and set up a commission of inquiry, the circumstances of Okende’s murder have not been established. More than six months later, the family says they finally intend to claim his body from the morgue to bury him despite having not been allowed to see the autopsy report.
The judicial harassment of Bujakera further highlights the lack of transparency in the investigation into Okende’s death, Human Rights Watch said.
The court has repeatedly denied provisional release to Bujakera, ignoring international bail standards and a global outcry over his continued detention. RSF has referred his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. In late September 2023, dozens of journalists demonstrated in Kinshasa, calling on authorities to release Bujakera and halt attacks against the press. Several activists across Africa, foreign officials, press freedom groups, and international celebrities have condemned his arrest and detention.
Speaking on Radio France Internationale (RFI) and France 24 in November, President Felix Tshisekedi said he had nothing to do with Bujakera’s case, but added, “I also need to know … why was there an attempt to falsely attribute responsibility for Okende’s death to the intelligence services?” Tshisekedi then suggested that he might grant Bujakera “an amnesty, a pardon or whatever” if convicted.
On January 12, about 100 writers, journalists, artists and activists, signed a collective editorial urging Tshisekedi “to put an end to this imprisonment, without waiting for this iniquitous procedure to be completed.”
“Bujakera’s detention is a reminder that President Tshisekedi’s earlier pledge to recognize the media as a real ‘fourth estate of the realm’ is long forgotten,” Fessy said. “A rights-respecting democracy does not jail journalists for doing their job, and the start of Tshisekedi’s second term is an opportunity to reset with a clean slate, including by immediately ending the persecution of Bujakera.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).