Kinshasa, June 14, 2004—Concluding a two-week mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today called on the transitional government not to use national security as a justification for restricting the work of the press.
Journalists working in the DRC face frequent harassment, legal action, and even imprisonment, according to the findings of the two-person delegation from CPJ that has been in the DRC since June 1. In some parts of the country, journalists are exposed to violence and rebel attacks, most recently during the seizure of Bukavu by army dissidents.
CPJ’s mission took place against a backdrop of conflict in the east of the country and insecurity in the capital, Kinshasa, underlining the fragile nature of the current transition process. The fall of Bukavu on June 2 provoked violent anti-U.N. demonstrations in Kinshasa and other towns, with demonstrators turning against the government at one point. The government restored order after three days during which Kinshasa residents mostly stayed home and shops were closed. In the early morning of June 11, the government foiled an attempted coup staged by a member of the presidential guard who has not yet been caught.
Yesterday, the government issued a communiqué that warned editors of media outlets against publishing tendentious information, including “words that might discourage the armed forces” or “treating lightly the unfortunate events that threaten the peace process,” and warned offenders of sanctions.
“Following recent developments in the east of the country and in the capital, Kinshasa, CPJ is concerned to see the government issuing directives that seem to be an attempt to control the media and to stem criticism of the authorities,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Julia Crawford told a press conference in Kinshasa.
The CPJ delegation met with Information Minister Vital Kamerhe; the presidents of a government-sanctioned media watchdog group, a journalist-sponsored media ethics organization, and the national press union; and numerous journalists in different sectors of the profession. These journalists include the directors of three radio stations in Bukavu who were forced to flee because of rebel threats and attacks. CPJ also visited imprisoned journalists in Kinshasa.
Journalists who spoke with CPJ said their working conditions have improved since the signing of a peace agreement in late 2002, but remain difficult. Army dissidents who took Bukavu on June 2 threatened three community radio stations (Radio Maria, Radio Maendeleo, and Radio Sauti ya Rehema), forcing them off the air until government forces retook the town on June 9. Rebel forces hunting for Sauti ya Rehema director Joseph Nkinzo murdered his younger brother.
Two journalists are currently being held in preventive detention in a Kinshasa prison for alleged press offenses, and CPJ is investigating the case of a third journalist in detention. Journalists said the country’s legal system gives them little protection from attacks by powerful political or business interests. At the same time, many journalists who spoke with CPJ expressed concerns about the quality of journalism in the DRC and said the profession was taking steps to improve it. They cited low salaries and poor working conditions as threats to the independence of journalists and media outlets.
To the government of DRC:
* The CPJ delegation has seen firsthand that the security situation is unstable, but this should not be used as an excuse for authorities to curtail the normal work of the press.
* CPJ calls for the immediate release of journalists held in prison for alleged offenses connected to their work.
* The government should remind judicial authorities that preventive detention is an exceptional measure under national law and should not be used to systematically incarcerate journalists accused of press offenses.
* CPJ urges the government to work toward removing criminal sanctions for press offenses, which have a chilling effect on press freedom.
* CPJ is concerned that community radio stations remain vulnerable to pressure because excessively high licensing fees often prevent them from registering. We call on the government to address this problem.
To rebel forces:
* CPJ condemns rebel attacks on journalists in Bukavu. We call on rebel forces to respect the work of journalists and the right of journalists to work in a war zone. We remind combatants that a deliberate attack on a journalist constitutes a war crime.
Julia Crawford, CPJ’s Africa Program coordinator, led the CPJ delegation to the DRC. She is based in New York. Before joining CPJ, Crawford worked as a journalist in Kenya and Tanzania and for the English service of Radio France International in Paris.
Crawford is accompanied by Dr. Philippe Dahinden, who is acting as an independent expert to the mission. Dahinden is a lawyer and news editor for the Hirondelle Foundation, a Switzerland-based nongovernmental organization that works to promote independent media in conflict and post-conflict zones. He is the founder and former project director of Radio Okapi, a joint project between the United Nations and the Hirondelle Foundation in the DRC.
CPJ will release a more detailed report on the mission to the DRC.