KINSHASA, (REUTERS) – A Congolese journalist appeared in court on Friday on charges of spreading false rumours about the killing of a prominent opposition politician, according to his lawyer and court records seen by Reuters.
Stanis Bujakera, who also contributes to Reuters, has been in detention since Sept. 8 in connection with an article published by French news magazine Jeune Afrique about the circumstances of the death of Cherubin Okende, a former transport minister whose body was found in Kinshasa on July 13.
On Friday, he was brought before a judge for the first time, and charges were read out to him, his lawyer, Charles Mushizi, told Reuters.
The charges include that he “knowingly spread false rumours with the intent to alarm, worry or incite the population against established authorities,” according to a court document dated Oct. 3. He is also accused of transmitting unlawful messages, forgery and counterfeiting state seals or symbols, the document says.
Bujakera was not asked to enter a plea to the charges, which he denies, Mushizi said. The judge adjourned the trial until Oct. 20 following a request from Bujakera’s lawyers for time to prepare his defence. The reporter could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on all charges, Mushizi said.
The accusations relate to an article published on Jeune Afrique’s website on Aug. 31 that said an internal report by the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) had accused military intelligence agents of possible involvement in Okende’s killing, the magazine said in September.
The Congolese authorities dispute the authenticity of the report, Jeune Afrique said on its web site. It said further that the article in question did not carry Bujakera’s name, and he could not be held responsible for its content.
“We can only regret this worrying development in the proceedings targeting our correspondent Stanis Bujakera, who is being prosecuted for an article of which he is not the signatory,” Jeune Afrique’s managing editor, Francois Soudan, said of the trial.
Democratic Republic of Congo’s communications minister, Patrick Muyaya, and spokespeople for the police and state prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi told journalists in September that he was “a great supporter of press freedom”, but it would not be appropriate for him to comment on the case or intervene in a judicial matter. Muyaya has also previously declined to comment on similar grounds.
Local and international rights groups have expressed concern about Bujakera’s detention, calling it an attack on press freedom.
“Reuters opposes the detention of journalist Stanis Bujakera in Congo and calls for his immediate release. Journalists must be free to report the news in the public interest without harassment or harm, wherever they are,” a Reuters spokesperson said.
Bujakera’s lawyers have submitted an appeal for the journalist’s provisional release, Mushizi said. The judge is expected to issue a ruling next week.