Attacks on the Press 2003: Democratic Republic of Congo

President Joseph Kabila’s transition government was inaugurated in June, after warring parties signed a power-sharing deal in December 2002 that ended a devastating four-year civil war. The peace accord keeps Kabila in power until 2005, with four vice presidents from both the armed and unarmed opposition. In 2005, the country will hold its first elections since independence in 1960. While foreign observers praised Kabila for the accord, local journalists remain skeptical about the new government’s willingness and ability to ensure press freedom in the ravaged nation.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) transition constitution mandates the establishment of a High Authority on Media, a body meant to act both as a media watchdog and guarantor of press freedom. The authority, which Parliament has yet to approve, had not been created by year’s end. However, the government chose Modeste Mutinga, a longtime independent journalist and CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient in 2000, to head it. Mutinga, who will have the rank of minister, is well respected, and, in addition to having been a frequent target of harassment himself, he has been an outspoken advocate of media freedom in the DRC. But his job will not be easy, in part because the new body’s mandate and enforcement powers are unclear.

Congolese journalists have little protection from harassment, government-orchestrated or otherwise. They seldom have legal recourse, partly because of the high cost of legal representation, and partly because the judicial system is subject to influence from powerful local figures who are often the ones harassing journalists, according to local sources. Some local human rights organizations and press freedom groups, such as the Kinshasa-based Journaliste en Danger (JED), actively denounce abuses throughout the country. While JED has had some degree of success in raising awareness of the challenges faced by journalists, researchers at the organization say that court cases opened on behalf of local journalists are rarely resolved, and most often the perpetrators of harassment go unpunished.

Attacks against the press are often orchestrated by powerful local figures, including private citizens, members of the government, and military and former rebel officials. The most common forms of harassment are arbitrary arrests, physical aggression, and intimidation; local sources say that police officers and members of the military are often paid to arrest and detain journalists. For example, in August, National Police officers arrested Guy Kasongo Kilembwe, editor-in-chief of the Kinshasa-based satirical newspaper Pot-Pourri. Local sources told CPJ they believe that Kilembwe was arrested on the orders of Parliament member Pius Mwabilu, who is also the general manager of the media company Radiotélévision Groupe L’Avenir and publisher of the pro-government daily L’Avenir (The Future). After arresting Kilembwe, officers took him to a police station, where Mwabilu confronted him, saying, “You humiliated me in your newspaper, and now I am going to make you suffer.” On August 22, Pot-Pourri published a front-page article alleging that Mwabilu had used funds earmarked for collective use by parliamentarians to launch his media company. Kilembwe was released without charge after five days of detention.

The most sensitive topics journalists can cover are government corruption, shifting alliances within the new transition government, and foreign sponsorship of ex-rebel factions that continue to maintain economic networks and military links. The latter includes alleged Rwandan military support for the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) in the eastern region of Goma, and the financial and military support that senior Ugandan military officials have provided to local militias in the northeastern Ituri region to safeguard their economic interests in the DRC.

RCD authorities, unaccustomed to criticism, kept a tight grip on information in areas under their control. In May, RCD agents arrested and detained Joseph Nkinzo, director of the Anglican community radio station Sauti ya Rehema (Voice of Mercy), in Bukavu, a town near the Rwandan border. Local journalists said the arrest stemmed from broadcasts commenting on the RCD’s decision to withdraw from negotiations establishing the national transition government. (The RCD later rejoined the talks.)

Media that criticize the Kabila administration are also subject to threats and censorship from authorities. In early June, the Congolese National Police raided and closed the Kinshasa-based Radiotélévision Message de Vie (Message of Life), a religious broadcaster owned by the prominent and outspoken evangelical minister Fernando Kutino. Kutino, who had developed a large following, had recently started a political television campaign called “Save the Congo.” The campaign included thinly veiled criticisms of Kabila’s government and called on citizens to take responsibility for the future of their country. Kutino fled the country soon after the raid. According to JED, the radio station began broadcasting again in December using new equipment financed by the church, but Kutino remained in exile at year’s end.

Conditions for Congolese media professionals vary throughout the country. Because the transition government has not extended its authority throughout the DRC, media workers continue to be at the mercy of local officials who operate with impunity. This is particularly true in the eastern and northern areas of the country, which were previously controlled by powerful rebel movements whose leaders have been incorporated into the transition government, leaving a temporary power vacuum. In those areas, local authorities–whether they are longtime civil servants or political appointees–generally apply their own ad hoc policies on media freedom.

The ambiguity over who is in charge has led to a number of media abuses. In early August, Alimasi Mayanga, a programming director for the state-run broadcaster Radio Télévision Nationale Congolaise (RTNC) in the northern city of Kisangani, was reprimanded by local authorities for not broadcasting Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) political propaganda programs. An RCD official threatened Mayanga with suspension, saying that the RCD was still in charge. Though the RTNC was created by the national government, control of RTNC stations varies according to the regional authority. Weeks later, newly appointed Information Minister Vital Kamerhe clarified that the federal government in Kinshasa would make programming decisions thereafter.

With the peace accords, access to previously closed-off areas has increased. But local journalists are generally limited to taking U.N.-organized trips, while foreign journalists with the financial resources to travel can go unaccompanied. Travel to areas such as the volatile Ituri region and North and South Kivu provinces can be extremely dangerous due to the ongoing presence of heavily armed rival militias and remaining rebel forces.

In late June, local journalist Acquitté Kisembo disappeared in Bunia, the main city in the Ituri region. Kisembo, who was working as a fixer for Agence France-Presse, has not been found. Journalists suspect that he was kidnapped and killed by militiamen loyal to Thomas Lubanga, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the rebel group that controlled the town of Bunia until mid-June. The motives for the kidnapping remain unclear.

Local journalists usually cannot access information from other parts of the country. Radio Okapi, created jointly by the U.N. Mission in the Congo and the Switzerland-based Hirondelle Foundation, remains the only source of news available nationally, with local affiliates and relay stations in 11 Congolese cities. Recently, several mobile phone networks were extended to most major cities, which will likely have a positive impact on journalists’ ability to gather information from these areas.

However, limited financial resources hamper news gathering. Because journalists in the DRC remain severely underpaid, it is difficult for them to remain independent, and local sources say that many journalists are susceptible to bribes. According to JED, most local journalists have no contracts with their employers and often work on a project basis, so taking bribes is sometimes the only way journalists can support themselves.

A December report from JED noted there had been some improvement in press freedom conditions in the DRC during 2003, with the average duration of imprisonment for press offenses decreasing. For the first time in years, no journalists were in prison for their work in the DRC at year’s end. JED attributes the improvements to the stabilizing security situation after the peace accords, as well as an increased sense of accountability on the part of officials in the new government. In December, JED launched a national campaign to decriminalize press offenses.