National Press Club

NPC in History – What two African carvings say about press freedom

October 4, 2018 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

These African carvings were given to the National Press Club by the Club's 1994 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award international winner, Kalala Mbenga Kalao. In his reporting, he exposed corruption by the dictator of Zaire, a country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

These African carvings were given to the National Press Club by the Club's 1994 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award international winner, Kalala Mbenga Kalao. In his reporting, he exposed corruption by the dictator of Zaire, a country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Photo/Image: Ferdous Al-Faruque

Two African carvings that sit in a display cabinet on the National Press Club’s mezzanine tell the story of the Club’s commitment to freedom of the press around the world and the rescue of an African journalist and his pregnant wife.

Every year the Club awards its John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award in the international category to a journalist who has done notable work in advancing the cause of a free press in his or her country.

In 1994, the year I was president, the Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee, chaired by Pam Constable, then with the Boston Globe bureau, gave the award to a journalist from Zaire, a country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Kalala Mbenga Kalao, then 26 years old, had been beaten and jailed for exposing the corruption of Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ran one of the most secretive and repressive regimes in Africa. Kalao was released only because his plight had been prominently touted by human rights organizations.

When he was told he had won the Club's award, he was able to bribe his away across the Congo River to catch a Club-paid flight to Washington. In the award ceremony on March 16, Kalao presented the Club with these carvings just after Attorney General Janet Reno gave the keynote speech.

Kalao did not speak English, and in presenting the award, I read a translation of his acceptance speech in which he denounced Mobutu.

Everything was fine – until the next day. That’s when I learned that Kalao could not return to Zaire because he would be killed immediately. In addition, his wife, Sylvie, was pregnant and being watched closely by Mobutu’s henchmen. The Club had to get her out. She, too, had to bribe her way to get onto an airplane to escape.

But now the Club had a responsibility for both of them – and their coming child.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, now known as Human Rights First, took his case, and attorneys Mitchell Zamoff and Tim Carlson of the Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson, now known as Hogan Lovells, filed an application for asylum with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Without speaking English, Kalao faced difficulty finding a job and housing. Fortunately, at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, where I attend, the associate pastor, Ruth Reinhold, grew up in Zaire as a child of missionaries. She immediately took responsibility for the Kalaos, finding them a place to live and a job for Kalala in a grocery store while he studied English at Georgetown University. A healthy son was born not long afterward. They named him Mitch after Zamoff.

After 25 years, the Kalaos live in a northern Virginia suburb. Kalala is president and executive director of the African Media Institute, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization with correspondents around the Great Lakes region of Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda). It promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists and media professionals in Africa by drawing attention to abuses of journalists and by appealing to the public conscience for freedom of expression and information in Africa.

Sylvie went on to graduate in Ophthalmic Studies at Georgetown University and Mitch is now in college, working toward a dual degree in film studies and marketing.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 110-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.