Is Kinshasa afraid of Thierry Michel?

Is Kinshasa afraid of Thierry Michel?
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By Jean-Paul Marthoz/CPJ Senior Adviser

Two years after his brutal murder and the disappearance of his driver, human rights activist Floribert Chebeya still haunts the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Today at a press conference held at the European Parliament in Brussels, independent Belgian journalist and filmmaker Thierry Michel presented extracts of an interview with one of the killers who directly incriminated the chief of the national police, General John Numbi, in a crime that has shocked the country and the international community.

Two days earlier, Michel, the acclaimed author of the film “L’affaire Chebeya, une affaire d’Etat?” had been barred from entering the DRC. Although his resident status was valid until February 13, 2013, he was forced to board the first Brussels-bound airplane under the pretext that he did not have the right exit visa.

The filmmaker had planned to spend a few weeks in the DRC to show the film to a large public. Although “L’affaire Chebeya” is a powerful exposé of the dark side of President Joseph Kabila’s national police forces, Michel had received the official backing of the French Embassy, of the delegation in Kinshasa of Belgium’s Francophone community, as well as of various national and international NGOs, among them the Carter Center and the International Federation of Leagues of Human Rights (FIDH).

The filmmaker, in fact, was not welcome. In recent months Michel had faced a cascade of bureaucratic hurdles and although his film was not officially censored, a number of cultural centers had already canceled their events.

“By expelling Thierry Michel, Kinshasa is sending a bad signal,” wrote Véronique Kiesel in the Brussels daily Le Soir. A few months before hosting the Francophonie Summit, the Congolese government has reminded everyone of its arbitrary and repressive ways and reinforced concerns that had been raised in recent months by the international community.

In mid-June, the persistence of worrying human rights conditions had led the European Parliament to issue a resolution calling on the Congolese government “to commit itself resolutely to a political practice that genuinely respects all human rights including freedom of expression and opinion.” In that context, the Chebeya case is considered a litmus test. Expressing their concern that “the killers of Floribert Chebeya are still at large despite a Court ruling,” the members of Parliament also “invited the DRC authorities, in the name of freedom of expression, not to impede, either directly or indirectly, the distribution in the DRC of the film by filmmaker Thierry Michel.”

Were the Congolese authorities afraid of the impact of new revelations during Thierry Michel’s circuit? Since the release of his film last March, Michel had continued his investigations and succeeded in interviewing one of the three policemen who had been convicted in the murder and had fled from justice, Paul Mwilambwe.

In the extracts of this filmed testimony presented at the European Parliament, the former policeman not only explains how Chebeya and his driver were murdered but states that Gen. Numbi had promised US$10,000 to the assassins.

Gen. Numbi is a very influential figure, Michel said. “He could incite some actions, mobilize people.” The appeals trial started in June and on July 17, a second session will have to determine whether Gen. Numbi, as requested by the victims’ families, will be heard by the court not as a witness but as an accused. The Chebeya case is turning into a ticking bomb for the Congolese government.

Meanwhile, as Michel’s expulsion has again focused the attention on the failings of DRC’s justice, rebel forces are reportedly advancing towards the key city of Goma, in the Eastern part of the country, demonstrating Kinshasa’s continued failure to assert its authority in the strategic Great Lakes region.

CPJ Senior Adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. He is a foreign affairs columnist for Le Soir and journalism professor at the Université catholique de Louvain.

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