The Struggle for Freedom UPDATE: Prominent reporter Stanis Bujakera freed in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute
Photo from Stanis Bujakera's Facebook page.

Stanis Bujakera, deputy editor of and a correspondent for Jeune Afrique and Reuters in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was released on March 19 the day after he was convicted of spreading false information on social media. He was sentenced to 6 months in prison, but credited with time served since his arrest on Sept. 8 and released.  

The unexpected and rapid conclusion to a baseless prosecution appears to be an attempt by the DRC government to sweep the matter under the rug after it tried to use Bujakera’s arrest for its own benefit.  

Bujakera’s ordeal, described in The Struggle for Freedom series, began in July 2023 when the opposition figure Chérubin Okende was found dead in his car. The Paris-based Jeune Afrique reported in an unsigned article that a memo produced by the National Intelligence Agency, or ANR in its French acronym, laid the responsibility for Okende’s death at the feet of the DRC’s military intelligence agency. Among other things, the memo stated that Okende died from asphyxiation while in the custody of military intelligence agents.  

Police arrested Bujakera in September on charges he forged and disseminated the memo. He faced up to 10 years in prison. 

The prosecution’s case began to fall apart almost immediately. The press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders and the journalistic consortium Congo Hold-Up established that the intelligence memo was an authentic document of the ANR and that the claims against Bujakera were “technically impossible.”       

Bujakera’s release is welcome news – but he shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. By jailing him for 6 months, the government arguably achieved some of its objectives. Bujakera, one of the country’s most prominent journalists, was sidelined during the national elections in 2023 in which the incumbent Felix Tshisekedi secured a second presidential term despite widespread concerns about systemic fraud. The prosecution of Bujakera also served to divert attention from the possibility of official culpability in the death of Okende, who was allied with the major challenger to Tshisekedi’s re-election.  

In February, the government classified Okende’s death as a suicide. 

Still, the government may yet rue bringing such an absurd case. It now has to contend with a heightened level of scrutiny over the deterioration of press freedom and the risible judicial process followed in Bujakera’s case.   

“By condemning me, they tried to scare all journalists,” Bujakera said upon his release. Now, Bujakera is not only returning to his usual journalistic beats but is also able to report his first-hand knowledge of conditions for prisoners in Kinshasa’s notorious Makala jail. Its appalling overcrowding and lack of sanitation resemble “the antechamber to hell,” he told Jeune Afrique.  

Another area that merits attention from Bujakera and other DRC journalists is Chinese investment in the Congo’s mining sector. Tshisekedi recently renegotiated a 2008 copper and cobalt mining contract with a Chinese consortium that he and analysts had criticized as unfair to the DRC. According to reporting by Voice of America, problems with that agreement included vast undervaluation of the mine and failure to spend even the inadequate amount of infrastructure investment pledged. According to experts cited by VOA, the new deal, which Tshisekedi claims pledges $7 billion for DRC infrastructure, suffers from the same lack of transparency.    

Xi Jinping is leading an ambitious, well-resourced authoritarian assault on universal values and norms in Africa and around the world. For Congo’s people to benefit from the country’s resources, investment and infrastructure deals must be transparent, and its press must be able to report on them in detail. Mitigating China’s corrosive influence will depend on American leadership in support for press freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.