Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern today after a fire destroyed two TV stations and a radio station belonging to Joseph Kabila’s rival for the presidency, Jean-Pierre Bemba, in Kinshasa on 18 September, inflicting second-degree burns on their director-general, Stéphane Kitutu.
“This is a further serious incident in the climate of violence affecting the privately-owned media in Kinshasa,” the press freedom organisation said. “A serious and transparent investigation must be carried out to identify the cause, which the Congolese public has a right to know. We express our sympathy to Stéphane Kitutu and our wishes for his recovery.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We have already had occasion to stress the danger posed by the extreme politicisation of the media at election time and in circumstances such as those prevailing in Democratic Republic of Congo. But nothing would be more disastrous for the future of the democratic process than to allow rumours and unproven accusations to circulate, or to leave a new crime against the press unpunished.”
The fire broke out at around 3:30 pm on 18 September in the building that houses the three TV and radio stations - Canal Congo Télévision (CCTV), Canal Kin Télévision (CKTV) and Radio Liberté Kinshasa (Ralik) - as well as the headquarters of Bemba’s party, the Movement of the Liberation of Congo (MLC). The Kinshasa fire brigade brought it under control at around 5:15 pm.
Journalists and technicians questioned on the scene by Reporters Without Borders’ local partner organisation, Journalist in Danger (JED), spoke of “significant damage” and several injured. Kitutu was rushed to a Kinshasa hospital and was then flown to South Africa for treatment to his severe burns.
CCTV journalist Marius Oleko told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the fire broke in one of the studios. Journalists who were present told JED they heard a “detonation” that was immediately followed by a “gigantic flame that spread up to the building’s third floor.”
“Everything started in an air-conditioning unit that began emitting smoke and then a flame,” AFP was told by Kasongo Numbi, an independent parliamentarian who reputedly supports President Kabila’s party. Numbi had gone there to exercise his right of response in a CCTV studio. After being evacuated from the building, Numbi was attacked and badly beaten by MLC activists and is now hospitalised with a broken leg, broken teeth and bruising.
The two TV stations have not been broadcasting since the fire. Previously, their broadcasts were illegally suspended for 21 days by the information ministry, resuming on 11 September.
MLC executive secretary Thomas Luhaka told AFP he did not know what caused the fire and would await the results of an investigation, in which the local UN mission, MONUC, is to participate.
Reporters Without Borders wrote to Kabila and Bemba on 21 August warning them of the danger of letting the news media become “weapons in the service of lies and violence.” Bemba and Kabila are the two candidates left in the upcoming presidential run-off.