TASSC Survivor Testifies Before Subcommittee of the US House of Rep's

TASSC Survivor Nanythe Talani, a journalist and human rights activist from Congo-Brazzaville in West/Central Africa, testified before the Africa and Global Health Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 9, 2018. She was invited to speak by Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, Chairman of the Subcommittee.  Nanythe spoke about the lack of press freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on her country. Congo-Brazzaville has been controlled by one man—Denis Sassou Nguesso—from 1979 to present except for five years in the 1990s.

You can find Nanythe's full testimony below: 

Protecting Civil Society, Faith-Based Actors, and Political Speech in Sub-Saharan Africa

Statement by Nanythe Talani

Representative, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations

May 9, 2018  

My name is Nanythe Sylvanie Talani. I am a journalist, a survivor of torture and human rights activist from Congo-Brazzaville, a small country of 4.5 million people in West/Central Africa.  I want to thank Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Bass for holding this hearing today and giving me the opportunity to discuss the lack of press freedom and persecution of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa by focusing on the Republic of Congo and my own story.  

I am here today representing the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition or TASSC, a non-profit in Washington DC which provides psychological and employment counseling, legal assistance for asylum seekers and advocacy training to almost 300 survivors of torture every year. They are mostly from Africa but also from South Asia, the Middle East and Central America.

I have over 10 years of experience as a broadcast producer, investigative journalist and human rights activist in Congo-Brazzaville. I was forced to seek asylum in the United States because of a great fear that the Congolese government will persecute me due to my work as an investigative journalist.

Like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Republic of Congo’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press. But this “right” is only on paper. There is widespread censorship of journalists and constant interference by government agents in the media, especially when journalists write about “sensitive” subjects such as government corruption. Media freedom has deteriorated since President Denis Sassou Nguesso changed the constitution in 2015, removing age and term limits so he could govern indefinitely. Sassou Nguesso has ruled Congo since 1979, except from 1992 to 1997.  

The majority of broadcast and print media are controlled by members of the president’s family or by individuals close to him.  Most journalists and editors engage in self-censorship to avoid being targeted by the government.  Congolese journalists have basically two options—to praise and promote the ruling elite or just keep quiet. If you want to be a true professional, you risk threats at best and humiliation or even assassination at worst.

This is what happened to journalists Bruno Jacquet Ossebi and Elie Smith, my former boss, who both refused to engage in self-censorship. Ossebi was burned to death in a suspicious fire in his home in two-thousand and nine after he wrote many stories exposing the corrupt practices of the Congo elite. In 2014, security forces invaded the home of Elie Smith, robbed him and gang-raped his sister after he reported about government thugs attacking a gathering of opposition party members.

Now I would like to share my own personal experience.  In 2014, while working for the French –based magazine TerrAfrica, I wrote a story on ritual murders in the northern Congolese city of Ouesso. These murders take place in parts of Africa because some people believe they can use victims’ blood and organs to defeat their enemies, make them richer or more powerful. Murderers are often wealthy people who pay others to carry out the killings. My cameraman and I traveled to Ouesso to interview women who had survived attacks and family members of victims. Often the people hired to carry out the ritual murders were pygmies, who have suffered discrimination historically and were preyed upon by more powerful people.

I got tremendous professional satisfaction from reporting on this subject. The mayor of Ouesso was arrested because he was suspected of being connected to the murders. My article and the gruesome photos that accompanied it put a stop to ritual murders in Congo. They did not spread into other parts of the country and become commonplace like they have in Liberia and other countries in West Africa.  

But harassment from the authorities after my report took an enormous toll on me psychologically. The government was angry about my report because they thought a ritual murder story would tarnish Congo’s image in the international community and among foreign donors. Police found the people I interviewed in Ouesso and criticized them for speaking to me. Then authorities called my boss at TerrAfrica to say I should be careful about writing about “sensitive” subjects.  A friend with connections to a secret government agent told me my phone was being tapped. I was so frightened that I left my home to move in with my cousin and some male relatives whom I felt could protect me.

Other journalists in Congo were also being harassed at this time. The American Embassy, the European Union and the United Nations all told the Sassou Nguesso regime to leave journalists alone. The U.S. ambassador in Congo at the time was Stephanie Sullivan, now Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. I don’t what would have happened to me if the US, the EU and the UN had not intervened.

When you are constantly afraid because you could be attacked, assaulted, raped, jailed or even killed by people who will walk away with impunity, what kind of professionalism can you display as journalist? What kind of daily life can you have? This is what I and other journalists were facing in Congo. Fear of reporting the truth has a huge negative effect on journalism and the whole society. Even now, although I have been in the U.S. for almost three years, sometimes I’m still afraid of being attacked. So I always lock my bedroom door if my roommate is not home.

Fortunately, at a time when my emotional state was deteriorating, I won a Humphrey-Fulbright Fellowship from the U.S. State Department. I arrived in the United States in 2015 and started working at Voice of America-Afrique, or French to Africa.  After writing a story about government orchestrated massacres and civil war in Congo’s Pool region, I heard that the regime was angry with me again.  It did not want reporters covering these massacres, and it knew I was the one doing this at VOA.  After my Pool story was published, a friend told me: “Nanythe, I know you are very intelligent, I advise you not to return home.”  I could have gone back to Congo for an amazing job with UNESCO. But I was terrified about what might happen to me. This was when I decided to apply for asylum in the United States.

Today in Congo opposition leaders have been imprisoned. Student leaders have been jailed and tortured just for complaining about not receiving their scholarships and about conditions at their university.

Corruption, abuse of human rights and presidents in power for life are three of the major problems plaguing Africa. Congo has oil and other African countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo are rich in minerals. But government officials use these resources to enrich themselves instead of building schools, hospitals and roads. Governments routinely violate the human rights of minorities, women, journalists and political dissidents. And presidents stay in power for life.   

We need a free press to write about these problems. That is why I am proud to be an investigative journalist. I just hope that someday we have press freedom in my country like you do in the United States, where journalists don’t have to be afraid of exposing the truth.  And that Members of Congress can pressure Congo and other African governments to allow journalists to practice their profession without fear.

Thank you very much for listening to my testimony today.  

Contact: Andrea Barron, Advocacy & Outreach Program Manager at TASSC, Andrea@tassc.org