Saturday, June 4, 2016

Joseph Bitala-Bitemo: profile of a professional role Model in Congo

I have met with several Congolese journalists during my stay in Congo, but none has had a lasting positive, albeit unfathomable impression on me, the way Joseph Bitala-Bitemo has. Besides being a jovial person, he is an excellent professional. And he is also bilingual in both English and French, which is a feat in a country with a people who have an excessive love for France, the French language and culture. Because of Joseph Bitala-Bitemo’s professionalism, demonstrated through his unique reporting and presentation style, he is not only a star of the Congolese media landscape, he is a role model to an entire generation. With Jean Claude Kakou and Joachim Mbanza, they are the rare Congolese journalists, whom I know, have studied their journalism trade in France or in the free world. It might  explain the reason why, in spite  their proximity within the government, they have always shown or marked themselves out professionally, unlike the legion of their Congolese colleagues, who  studied press and propaganda in the Soviet Union, former eastern Europe under the communist bloc, Cuba or North Korea. Joseph Bitala-Bitemo is eloquent and masters international and regional political and economic matters. He has a knack to help younger generation of journalists to adhere to professional ethnics, which has been ruined by the heavy hand of the system, coupled with endemic corruption and passivity, which has wormed itself into the profession in Congo. He was the former director of what is called in Congo: the Presidential press corp, which is in reality, a special reporting team or unit, attached the presidency in charge of presidential propaganda.

This was under the regime of Professor Pascal Lissouba, the only post independent democratically elected president of Congo. Bitala-Bitemo left or went on self exile after Pascal Lissouba was toppled by Denis Sassou Nguesso in 1997. When he returned  and this, at a time when Denis Sassou Nguesso had decided to stage his public relations reconciliation gimmick, by carrying out or accepting the selective return of individuals, who were presumed to be close to the former regime. Upon return, Joseph Bitala-Bitemo was offered the post of adviser to the President of the republic and he was even re-integrated into the department of Communications of the presidency, headed this time around by Claudia Sassou Nguesso, the daughter of the President. To impress his new bosses and show them that, he was loyal, he even authored a book in which he attempts to glorify President Denis Sassou Nguesso.  In my opinion, Bitala-Bitemo’s book on Denis Sassou Nguesso had a second un-proclaimed objective. It was aimed at showing Congolese, especially supporters of Pascal Lissouba, who have not yet come to term, with the violence way, that they were driven away from power that his change is complete. Therefore the book even though not focused on reconciliation, Bitala-Bitemo also wanted to demonstrate those who had any doubt that, Sassou Nguesso and his reconciliation scheme was not a façade or a public relations stunt.

In other words, he wanted to show that, Sassou Nguesso meant business or was serious on reconciling the nation. However, what Bitala-Bitemo seems to have forgotten was that, in the realm of Denis Sassou Nguesso, everything was/is done with malicious calculations. Denis Sassou Nguesso’s national reconciliation, just like his presidential term limit inscribed in the January 20th 2002 constitution, now abrogated, was for international consumption and for the consolidation of his power. Then another thing that, Bitala-Bitemo forgot was that, Denis Sassou Nguesso abhors professionals, especially professional journalists, who refuse to sing his praise or dance to his tune. Hence Bitala-Bitemo gradually took his distance from a system that doesn’t tolerate dissent. Then, theatrically, he metamorphosed from being a critical journalist to a quiet journalist, and then into a breed that I lack the proper terminology to describe or attach to him. Perhaps to his discharge, he wants to survive or be alive and see his children grow, than suffer the fate of others such as Bruno J. Ossebi, Ghislain Simplice Ongouya, Joseph Ngouala and Prosper Mokabi Ndawa.  Even though he is still an adviser to the president, he has fallen out of favour with the regime simply because he had the courage unlike Jean Claude Kakou to denounce the presidential elongation plans of Denis Sassou Nguesso. In 2014, he was a member of the jury of the Congolese Press Award or Les Oscar de la Presse Congolaise. He was amongst those who prevailed that, I should be awarded the “best TV reporter award” for my coverage of the March 4th 2012 explosions at an ammunition depot in Mpila, a neighbourhood, located north east of Brazzaville and also for my coverage of the attack on the home of Colonel Marcel Nstourou by a combine group of soldiers and Police.

That operation took place on the 16th of December 2013. The rapport of Joseph Bitala-Bitemo with the current regime could be characterized or viewed in two ways: cat and mouse and also as that of survival instinct. For in spite having taken his distance from the regime, he has been appointed as the official spokesman for the “Municipalisation accelerer” de Bouanza region.  It is perhaps a prestigious and honorary post. But Sassou Nguesso doesn’t do anything by chance. He knows that Bitala-Bitemo is a native of the Bouanza region and second, he is a respected journalist. Denis Sassou Nguesso is a real communist, who survive only by propaganda or deceit. The “Municipalisation accelerer” or fast lane development scheme is a project launched by Denis Sassou Nguesso aimed at developing the interior of the country. In theory, it is a brilliant idea, but fraught with corruption because of chronic lack of accountability, duplication of projects that are mostly prestige projects or white elephant projects. Joseph Bitala-Bitemo is easily one of the best journalists in Congo, but whose talent is being wasted and also ignored by a regime that prospers only on propaganda and dishonesty.  The current regime in Brazzaville is one that prefers and glorifies incompetence. Hence they could not stand Bitala-Bitemo for too long.  Joseph Bitala-Bitemo studied political science and journalism in France and he now lives between London and Brazzaville. If the Congolese government were a government that admires and supports free press and talented journalists, Joseph Bitala-Bitemo would have been an extraordinary asset to shore up the profession in Congo. Sadly in Congo, what is encouraged is incompetence and mediocrity in lieu of competence and meritocracy. 

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