Melissa Harris-Perry: You're with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Last week, Congolese journalist Steve Wembi was reportedly arrested by the Democratic Republic of Congo's National Intelligence Agency. As of Friday morning, he still hasn't been seen. Government officials deny he is in their custody but Wembi's alleged arrest is in line with the pattern of the Congolese government's crackdown on the press.
According to Reporters Without Borders, so far this year 19 journalists have been arrested arbitrarily by Congolese authorities. Many of the detentions are extra-judicial so journalists aren't given a specific reason when they're taken by the police.
Before Wembi's detention, freelance journalist Nicolas Niarchos was detained and deported from the DRC in July and he joins us now. Nicolas, thanks for coming on The Takeaway.
Nicolas Niarchos: Thanks for having me on the show.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, before we get into the alleged arrest of Steve Wembi, I understand you were arrested back in July in the DRC. What happened in that case?
Nicolas Niarchos: Yes. We were contacting separatists to see what implication they had in this vitally strategic minerals trade, battery minerals trade in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We were sitting in a hotel restaurant interviewing some people, we were actually doing a pre-interview. The restaurant filled with soldiers and weapons drawn, it was quite scary. Then we were whisked away to the detention facility, transferred cities, are not allowed to contact relatives, embassy, whatever and we disappeared for six days. I say we it's me and a Congolese journalist that I work with, Jeff Kazadi, who's now free as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: First of all, we're glad that you're safe, that you're here and able to speak with us. Can you tell me what we know about what happened to Steve Wembi?
Nicolas Niarchos: Well, thank you for your kind wishes and I'm happy as well to be out. Steve disappeared last week on Monday. We're really going into the end of the second week of his detention. He had been at a press conference by the Minister of media and communications Patrick Muyaya, he told journalists that they needed to watch out, that they needed to be careful about what they tweeted, what they said, what they reported. Then Steve was going to a meeting at the Hotel Lyon in central Kinshasa. Suddenly, his driver was accosted by agents of the National Security Agency, which the ANR has been tracking him.
There was some scuffle at the hotel and then Steve dropped off the face of this planet. What we do know is that a week into his detention, one of his children at school was almost taken by unknown men and this happened a couple of days ago. His driver had to fend off these unknown men, obviously leading to more fear among journalists in Kinshasa that it was not only them but their families who have been targeted.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, the government denied that they have Wembi in their custody. Do you find that credible?
Nicolas Niarchos: I find it a very strange denial. The communications minister said that Wembi we spoke to him himself from an unknown number, and said, "Listen, I've gone into hiding." His family has said, "Well, why would he contact the communications minister and not us?" That's the only person who's supposedly heard from him. I found that story very difficult to believe. If he has in fact gone into hiding, why hasn't he spoken to his family and I've been in regular contact with members of his family, and they haven't heard from him.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The US backed the DRC's current president when he was elected in 2019. It was the Congo's first peaceful transition of power since becoming independent. Talk to me about how conditions for journalists have changed under this new administration.
Nicolas Niarchos: The last administration, truth be told was also repressive against journalists. Dozens of journalists died during the regime of Joseph Kabila, but there was a certain amount of freedom, and anarchic freedom not necessarily good. There was a lot of fake news under Kabila and the one thing that I would say is that if under Kabila you were arrested, you would be properly arrested, not just disappeared and your family not told. You would be able to tell people where you were. Under this new regime, they seem to be behaving repressively and trying to hide their tracks.
Now, the peaceful transition of power is very interesting, the Trump administration decided to support Tshisekedi who's the current president in the 2019 elections or 2018 elections going into 2019. His election had been marred by various different irregularities and everybody really knew that. There is a sense that there was this original sin to this administration, which is the fraud election process by which Tshisekedi came to power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As we're talking about being journalists in this circumstance, I do want to just highlight that both you and Wembi are freelance journalists, which means that you have very different relationships to the outlets for which you write. Does that affect your vulnerability in this environment?
Nicolas Niarchos: Well, I think that freelancers are always in more danger and especially freelance local journalists. Yes, as you say, Steve and I are both freelancers and I was very lucky that the publications that I've worked with came together and there was a vast of editors I've worked with and I'm working with made my case vehemently back-over in the US, and I think that really helped. I think the problem is that newsrooms, under-resourced, understaffed, as they famously are, are not always set up to handle these kinds of issues.
When it does happen, they're set up to handle on an insurance basis and so on. The issues of staff members, staff writers, and when you get to the level of freelancers, I think it's very difficult to meet those cases sometimes in these stretched newsrooms that you should step in and make a big case for these people. However, that being said, that's not what I believe, I think that freelancers should be supported just as much as media organs, staff writers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicolas Niarchos is a freelance journalist covering conflicts, minerals, and migration in Africa. Nicolas, thank you for helping to tell Steve Wembi's story. We're all hoping for his safe and swift return. Thanks for coming on The Takeaway.
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