Conditions for the press in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have improved somewhat since the government of President Joseph Kabila signed a peace accord with the main rebel groups in December 2002, ending four years of devastating civil war. However, local journalists still endure harassment, legal action, and imprisonment. They also have come under violent attack in some parts of the country, particularly in the east, where sporadic fighting between former rebel militias and government forces continues. Although the transition constitution–which was adopted in 2003 as part of the peace accords–guarantees press freedom, media advocacy groups say the government has done little to ensure that it is respected in practice.
Under the peace accords, Kabila will head the power-sharing transitional government until 2005 along with four vice presidents from both the political opposition and rebel groups. In June 2005, the DRC is due to hold its first democratic elections since independence in 1960. However, the government has been beset by political, military, and economic crises, and its control over the unstable eastern part of the country remains tenuous. When Rwandan-backed rebels took control of the eastern town of Bukavu in June, the ensuing political tension was accompanied by increased attacks on the press, by both the government and rebel forces.
A CPJ delegation that visited the DRC in the first two weeks of June confirmed the deteriorating conditions for the press there. During a two-month period surrounding the unrest in Bukavu, the government issued at least three directives to restrict press coverage; authorities imprisoned at least four journalists; and attackers allegedly led by an army officer severely beat another journalist.
At the end of May, as fighting erupted around Bukavu, a government communiqué warned that all TV and radio stations were “strictly forbidden to broadcast messages likely to aggravate the situation.” On June 5, then Press and Information Minister Vital Kamerhe summoned editors of media outlets in the capital, Kinshasa, and issued further warnings. On June 12, he distributed a circular cautioning the media against “words that might demoralize the Congolese Armed Forces” or “treating lightly the unfortunate events that threaten the peace process.” He also threatened legal sanctions.
When rebels took Bukavu, they forcibly closed the town’s three main community radio stations to silence news coverage, and they threatened the stations’ directors, forcing them to flee. Rebels also killed the brother of radio station director Joseph Nkinzo, whom they mistakenly believed was Nkinzo. Although the rebels withdrew from Bukavu on June 9, they remained in the region and subsequently targeted at least one other journalist, forcing him to flee after he wrote an article alleging human rights abuses by the rebels.
In December, amid renewed clashes in the east between loyalist soldiers and Rwandan-backed army dissidents, new Press and Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi denounced a visit to Rwanda by 11 Congolese journalists from the private press. The journalists, who had been reporting on the fighting in eastern DRC, went to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, and interviewed Rwandan President Paul Kagame, according to Congolese press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED). The minister’s statement accused them of leaving the country illegally and of spreading Rwandan propaganda. However, JED said the journalists had obtained the necessary travel permits, and that they had acted professionally. JED accused the minister of wanting to prevent Congolese journalists from traveling abroad, and of issuing veiled threats to the press.
Congolese journalists say they continue to work under the constant threat of imprisonment. DRC laws, notably the 1996 Press Law and the Penal Code, contain a wide range of criminal “press offenses” that are frequently used to jail journalists, often without due process. Journalists who dare to criticize those with political, military, or financial power are the most at risk. In March, Jean-Denis Lompoto, publications director of the satirical weekly Pili-Pili, was jailed for a week on defamation charges after he accused Mining Minister Eugène Diomi Ndongala of corruption. During CPJ’s visit in June, three journalists were in “preventive detention” in Kinshasa Prison on defamation charges. Within two months, all three journalists had been granted “provisional” freedom. There were no further developments in their cases at year’s end, according to JED, which said that such cases often do not go to trial.
Also in June, journalist Gustave Kalenga Kabanda spent about two weeks in jail for filming the luxurious Gemena residence of Jean-Pierre Bemba, one of the DRC’s four vice presidents. Bemba accused him of spying and trespassing, according to JED. In September, Freddy Monsa Iyaka Duku, publications director of the respected Kinshasa daily Le Potentiel, was arrested and detained overnight after Vice President Arthur Z’Ahidi Ngoma filed a complaint over an article about a land ownership dispute between Ngoma and a private company.
CPJ documented several cases in which government security forces attacked the press in 2004. In August, national intelligence agents stormed the offices of the evangelical Radio Hosanna in the southern city of Lubumbashi and closed it after the station broadcast a sermon alleging that the government was corrupt and had mismanaged the country’s economy. Seven employees were arrested and released three days later. A court in Lubumbashi acquitted the pastor responsible for the sermon on October 18, and he was released that day, according to JED. Also on October 18, security forces returned the station’s equipment.
Many Congolese journalists recognize the need to improve professional standards and keep ethnic and political propaganda out of the media. Three new regulatory bodies have recently been launched to oversee the press, two of them created by journalists: the High Authority on Media (HAM), a public agency created under the peace accords; the Observatory of Congolese Media (OMEC); and the Press Card Commission of the Congolese National Press Union (UNPC). A national journalism congress in March 2004 created OMEC and UNPC.
HAM comprises representatives from all parties in the transition government. It can impose sanctions, such as the suspension of radio and TV programs that are deemed to break the law. Its president is Modeste Mutinga, a veteran journalist and former CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner who founded the Kinshasa daily Le Potentiel. Local journalists and press freedom organizations have welcomed Mutinga’s appointment and hope that he will guarantee HAM’s independence. At the same time, they have expressed some concern that the body could be subject to political pressure.
OMEC, which mainly comprises professional journalists, is a self-regulatory body that deals with ethics complaints. It can issue public rebukes or recommend the withdrawal of press credentials. Its president is Polydor Muboyayi, a veteran journalist and editor of the Kinshasa daily Le Phare (The Lighthouse).
The March journalism congress also took steps to revitalize the national press union, UNPC (formerly UPC), and created within it a Press Card Commission. UNPC President Kabeya Pindi Pasi said that the organization was proposing that all professional members must have a press card, which would require a work contract and diploma in journalism or the equivalent. A UNPC disciplinary committee may suspend or withdraw press cards if journalists are deemed to have acted unethically. Charles Dimandja, information director of the private TV station RTKM, heads the commission.
Local journalists say that, with these regulatory bodies operational, the government should lift criminal penalties for press offenses. They also stress that the new bodies will need to be independent and resist all political pressure, especially to ensure free and professional media coverage of the elections scheduled for 2005.