At one time, Marciano Romaric Kenzo Chembo would have never imagined that his dedication to journalism would eventually tear his family apart and force him to flee his home country, the Central African Republic.
Before François Bozizé took power in 2003, censorship and the suspension of journalists from their jobs was common, but reporters could speak out about press freedom violations. Under Bozizé, the threats grew more serious.
It took Kenzo Chembo several years to realize just how hostile to journalists the Central African Republic had become. During these years, he became a reporter, producer and presenter for the radio station Ndeke Luka. The station is owned by Fondation Hirondelle, a Swiss organization that specializes in the creation of independent media in crisis areas.
In charge of a daily radio program called "À Vous la Parole" ("It's Your Turn to Have the Floor"), Kenzo Chembo walked the streets of the capital Bangui to collect the opinions of ordinary people on current events. “I covered all kind of issues, whether social, political, economic, military or religious,” he says.
Local authorities saw Kenzo Chembo’s outspokenness as subversive and repeatedly intimidated and threatened him and his family. Threats intensified after Kenzo Chembo reported on alleged efforts by Bozizé's son, Teddy, to bury alive two friends he suspected of having an affair with his wife. Chembo realized he was no longer safe.
He fled the Central African Republic for France in September 2012, just as Bozizé's rule was being challenged by an offensive by the predominately Muslim Seleka militias. Bozizé and his family would themselves flee in March 2013 as the country descended into civil war between the Seleka and the mainly Christian anti-Balaka militias.
Kenzo Chembo, 34, spoke with Global Journalist's Laura Welfringer about his resistance to censorship, the difficulties he faced leaving his home country and the hardships of his new life.
Global Journalist : How were you affected by the political pressure to censor information?
Kenzo Chembo: The radio program that I produced was the nemesis of the political authorities in the Central African Republic. I was accused of being nosy and subversive. Ministers of the Central African Republic [showed] up several times in the studio in order to threaten me. I received threats on my private landline phone. I changed my phone number several times. I ran away from home and I slept here and there repeatedly. Starting from 2011-2012, threats intensified. I could not even drive around at night, and the radio director asked me to stop the program. I was assaulted twice. The first time, I was beaten by two strangers while leaving the studio around 7 p.m… About two months later, I was attacked in my neighborhood.
GJ: What particular incident caused you to go into exile?
Kenzo Chembo: One day, one son of the former President Bozizé almost buried alive two of his friends for having an affair [with his wife], and he asked the presidential security to beat them. When I produced a radio program speaking about this, it sparked things off. Bozizé's son called me on my phone, he sent people over to me, and he swore he would kill me eventually. At first, I thought it was a joke. But after a while, they put a lot of pressure on me and on my family. My father left home and my mother was fired. Bozizé's son and his friends also had acquaintances working at Bangui's crown court, and [they begged me] to leave the country if I wanted to save my skin. So when I realized that all these threats were serious, I decided to leave. But I never wished to leave.
GJ: How were you ever affected by the conflict between Seleka and the anti-Balaka militias?
Kenzo Chembo : I left Bangui before the arrival of the Seleka. When I left Bangui in 2012, I thought that I would come back after the fall of Bozizé. Unfortunately, three days after [Bozizé's fall], when the Seleka rebels took power [in March 2013], they found that I had produced a radio program that denounced their action. Some of them destroyed my house and arrested my little brother because they wanted to get some information about me. Today, my brother still remains unaccounted for.
GJ: Did the rest of your family follow you in exile?
Kenzo Chembo No, [before I came to France] my partner left me, along with our children, because she felt they were in danger. Today, my mother is the only connection that I have with the Central African Republic, because she says she will never leave the country. My mother is still in the camp for internally displaced persons at the M'Poko Bangui airport.
GJ: How did you get out of Bangui ?
Kenzo Chembo: I only traveled by night. I shaved my hair, I dressed like a laborer, I did not carry anything [except] a small beggar's bag, and I had to borrow a merchandise vehicle. But before I took this vehicle, I traveled 75 km [on foot] because I had to [get] out [of] the capital and avoid the many checkpoints set up by the presidential guard and by the police force. I took a fake identity until I reached the border.
GJ: What is your life in exile like?
Kenzo Chembo: It has been very difficult. When you live involuntarily away from home, when you leave behind your family, your job, your whole life, and all what you had constructed overnight, it is really heartbreaking, even if you find shelter in another country. You have to start all over again and it is very difficult especially when you are African because people have a lot of stereotypes. When I arrived in France, I was accommodated by a compatriot. After two months, I became homeless. During this period, I contracted a disease, and I spent six months at a hospital. When I left the hospital, word of mouth helped me find La Maison des Journalistes [“The Home for Journalists,” a Parisian organization that protects journalists in exile in France]. I went there, and they offered me shelter, they gave me the opportunity to do my job as a journalist. For the moment, I do not work for profit. I write for L'oeil de l'Exilé [The Eye of the Exiled], a newspaper operated by La Maison des Journalistes, and I keep collaborating with some newspapers in the Central African Republic.
GJ: Do you plan to return to your home country?
Kenzo Chembo: Even though I miss my country, the conditions for me to go back there are not good because today, journalists are [caught] in a vice in the Central African Republic. On the one hand, the country is held hostage by militias and armed gangs: the Seleka and the anti-Balaka. …On the other hand, there is no security nor reconciliation in the Central African Republic.
This year, four journalists have died in the Central African Republic, [including] one French journalist [Camille Lepage]. I'd say that perfectly illustrates the danger of the people that are in power and the lack of freedom that journalists have.