August 24, 2015

Reporter’s Journal: A Malaria Arrest

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MalariaWhat happens when a journalist investigates treatment facilities for malaria patients in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? For Francis Mbala, it led to his arrest and a Kafkaesque tale about the dangers of investigating in one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Mbala’s story comes from the ZAM Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

The University Clinics in Kinshasa, the CUK, do not form an integral part of my investigation into the spending of hundreds of millions of donated dollars meant to fight malaria in my country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The CUK is not a beneficiary of those specific funds. It is, however, a very well-known academic health facility in Kinshasa and I had chosen this place to compare their treatment of malaria patients with the treatment in other clinics that – officially at least – are said to benefit from said funds.

zam-logoAs long as my identity as a journalist is not revealed, nobody stands in my way. But when I use my cellphone to quickly get a snapshot of the waiting room, pandemonium breaks out. One of the people in the line screams. I have no time to ask the man why he objects as, immediately, a burly man who says he is the ‘chief of personnel’, confronts me, blocks my way and calls security. I had seen the burly man hanging around here already. Has he been on to me?

Explaining that I am a journalist, reporting on healthcare in my country, doesn’t help. It actually makes things worse. “Why must you tell people about what we do here? What business is it of theirs what we do here? All you journalists are the same. You just want to defame our President.” His attitude reminds me of the Mobutu era, when all officials in charge of institutions were also local representatives of the governing party. This man, too, behaves like a political boss.

A Jail Floor Soaked with Urine

He calls security, more burly men, who, between them, drag me to the nearby station of the judiciary police, where I am interrogated by a policeman called Jean Ndjate. He accuses me of being a spy with the mission to bring down the Congolese government and ‘its healthcare leaders’. His questions quickly descend into the absurd: “Who told you that there were malaria patients here?  Have you got informants in all the clinics? You want to inform the public about malaria? Why? What do you want the public to do with that information?” The questioning lasts for over two hours.

I am then taken, by motorcycle with side car, to another police station where I am booked and thrown into a jail cell. There is no bed here and it stinks. When I sit down I realise that the concrete floor is soaked with urine.

The next morning, policemen take me back to the CUK to see the deputy medical director, Professor Lutula, who tells me my case is serious. “We have very bad experiences with journalists,” he says. “This case must be taken up to the highest levels of the justice system.” I can’t help wondering what these bad experiences with journalists are. If my memory serves me right, the same Professor Lutula, in his capacity as deputy medical director of the CUK, was honored last year by AJACO, the Congolese Association of Analytical Journalists, as an exceptional and dedicated public servant. But I don’t dare share these recollections now.

Back at the police station, Ndjate asks me if I have a ‘work engagement’ letter proving that I have been contracted by a media house to report on the CUK. When I confess that I have no letter to show for this specific assignment, Ndjate threatens to ‘sequester’ me until I “tell the truth” about my activities. “Your life is in our hands. You better decide what to do, because you will have many regrets later on.” I spend my second night on the stinking floor.

I will understand later that my chefs at one of my employers, BRT Africa, all this while, are attempting unsuccessfully to negotiate my release. I am held for another day, the maximum of days allowed. If they want to keep me any longer, they must present a case to the prosecution. I wonder if they will go ahead and make such a case.

But it looks like they won’t, or can’t. On Friday evening Ndjate tells me I can go, but there are conditions. I must bring a sum of money ‘to close the case’ as well as the story I plan to write, so that the police and CUK management can read it. If not, they can re-arrest me again. They keep my identity card and phone, as well as the identity card of family friend Dr Papy who has, in the meantime, come to help negotiate my release. I am admonished by Ndjate, in the company of a prosecutor that, if I do not bring my article as well as the work assignment letter, they will ’get me back’ in here. “You will never, never escape us,” says Ndjate.

I have also been told that I must present myself back at the CUK in Tuesday, so that Professor Lutula can check the pictures that have to be deleted from my phone. Dr Papy is forced to sign a “letter of promise” that the payment “for case closure” will be made. In the following days, I will be reminded by many messages – to Dr Papy and other relatives and friends- that this payment is very urgent and that I could be re-arrested any time.

Back home, my mother tells me that she, too, has gone to the police station where I was being held and that she was told by the station commander that, if it was up to him, he would free me immediately because it was clear that I was a journalist. How remarkable, this: that even a station commander in this country is apparently not free to do his job as he sees fit.

International Solidarity

Moved by my case, international media colleagues come to my rescue. ZAM in the Netherlands and Wealth Magazine in Australia call on Congolese authorities. Wealth Magazine attempts to enlist the support of Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), but, for some reason, for two days that organisation doesn’t answer the phone, nor does it respond to voicemail. ZAM’s efforts have more success. Their message to the Netherlands’ embassy in Kinshasa, that a ZAM journalist is in trouble, leads to an intervention by the Dutch Kinshasa mission vis a vis the DRC Presidency’s anti-corruption bureau and the head of the national police, General Bisengimana. I am given General Bisengimana’s direct phone number and, after talking with him for about ten minutes, I am then given the number of a Colonel Gislain Sanga, who is “in charge of the jurisdiction” where I was arrested and who will “verify the situation on the spot.”

Regrettably, Colonel Sanga turns out to be extremely busy with a “police training” project – at least that is what I am told by those who answer his phone. After more than a week, I am finally told that I can come see him. I present myself at his office early on that Monday morning. I spend the whole day waiting there in vain.

In the meantime, my phone and identity card, and my friend Dr Papy’s card, are still with the judiciary police. It is not clear if we will ever get these back. Yes, General Bisengimana has instructed his subordinate, Colonel Sanga, to set things right. But this is the Congo. Here, there is no follow up if an instruction is ignored. The General will not even know that it was ignored. There is no performance review – not for Sanga, not for the General himself, not for the station commander who would have done his job “if it was up to him.” Corruption, repression and extortion thrive in my country in the absence of a system of management.

This story originally appeared in the ZAM Chronicle and is reprinted with permission. The Chronicle is published by GIJN member ZAM, a non-profit based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, that represents a network of hundreds of journalists, photographers, artists, and activists in Africa and beyond.

Francis MbalaFrancis Mbala began his career in 2010 as a news reporter and presenter for Radio/TV 13 in Kananga, DRC. He saw his first investigation, on real estate corruption, killed by his own bosses. He now heads the sports department at BRA FM (Business Radio Africa) while working with Wealth Magazine on stories about natural resource exploitation in central Africa.

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