Seated near the fireplace in a historical home in Tournai, a medieval town 70 miles from Brussels and a stone's throw from the French border, while snow fell outside, Solange Lusiku Nsimire was enjoying not only the company of friends, but the chance to live for a few days without fearing suspicious noises in the garden or ominous knocks on the door.
Lusiku is editor-in-chief and publisher of the independent newspaper Le Souverain in her hometown Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province in eastern Congo, one of the most troubled regions of the DRC. It is a small and crusading newspaper devoted to promotion of democracy and women in a country where abuses against democracy and against women are too often the norm.
Two days earlier, on February 2, Lusiku had been awarded a prestigious honorary doctorate degree at the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL), a tribute to her courage as a journalist and women's rights defender. (Also honored were Salil Shetty, the general secretary of Amnesty International, and Daniel Cornu, ombudsman of the Swiss media group Edipresse and the author of the acclaimed essay "Journalisme et Vérité," or Journalism and Truth.)
"Our life expectation is 24 hours, renewable," she said. "Since the 2006 elections, eight journalists have been killed because of their profession: Franck Ngyke, Bapuwa Muamba, Serge Maheshe, Mutombo Kahilo, Patrick Kikuku, Didace Namujimbo, Bruno Koko Cirambiza, [and] Pascal Kabungulu. Three of them were murdered in South Kivu."
Journalism is a risky assignment in Eastern Congo, a region crisscrossed by roving bands of Rwanda génocidaires, undisciplined army conscripts, and predators of all stripes. In 2004, while Lusiku was working for a local radio station, she had to go underground for a few weeks in order to escape the security services that had been upset by one of her stories.
Since she took over the editorship of Le Souverain in 2007 from founder Emmanuel Barhayiga, the dangers have not faded. Since the launch of the paper in 1992, 67 issues of the paper have been printed. The 68th issue will cover the highly contentious issue of last year's general elections, in which the incumbent President Joseph Kabila has been declared winner over the strident protests of his main rival, Etienne Tshisekedi. Ideally, Lusiku would publish the paper monthly.
"Journalism is my calling, the print media is my struggle, and independence is my motto," Lusiku insisted in her speech. Against the backdrop of mauve robes, costumed trumpeters, and other university pageantry, a large screen showed Lusiku at her desk in a modest building in Bukavu, together with her staff, preparing the next edition of the paper.
"Publishing is not a cakewalk," she said two days later. "We have to live with constant electricity stoppages, sending email is like sending snail mail, we have to print in Bujumbura, the capital of neighboring Burundi." Although its printing costs seem low at US$1200 per issue, Le Souverain is not sustainable. It produces 500 copies sold at US$1 a piece. The fact that each copy is read, according to Lusiku, by more than 100 people, does not help. Le Souverain needs outside funding.
What makes her endure all the risks and hardships? A passion for journalism, democracy and women's dignity. "I will remain an independent pen. Whatever happens I will continue my struggle to promote democratic values," she said in her speech at the UCL ceremony.
But there is also a passion for solidarity. The cooperation of Belgium's French-speaking community, the city of Brussels, and local civil society organizations like the Christian workers' movement have been supporting the paper. Interns from a Brussels journalism school (IHECS) have helped with layout and newsroom management. The UCL rector has pledged to mobilize university networks on Lusiku's behalf, and her friends have shipped a 13-ton press to Bukavu so the paper can be printed locally. "As far as I know the ship is approaching Dar Es Salaam," she said with hope.
The solidarity of local journalists' organizations and international press freedom groups is also a crucial factor in protecting media professionals from the violence and arbitrariness that prevails in the region.
"It is so comforting to know that friends and colleagues thousands of miles away from Bukavu care for you," Lusiku said. "I dare hope that those who want to silence the press understand that is riskier for them if there are people out there who watch and monitor their abuses."
"It reminds me of an old proverb that my parents used to tell me," she said. "If a woman enters the forest to fetch water and has a lion at a distance that protects her, she knows that she can take all her time and that no other wild animal will attack her."