Attacks on the Press 2005: Democratic Republic of Congo

The murder and attempted murder of journalists in 2005 sent a chill through the independent press in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Journalists operated in a tense pre-electoral climate, enduring threats and harassment from government officials and other powerful figures. Rampant corruption and a weak judiciary in a country still bearing the scars of civil war gave them little recourse to justice. The situation worsened after President Joseph Kabila postponed June elections for up to a year.

On November 3, unidentified gunmen killed a veteran political affairs journalist with the independent daily La Référence Plus. Franck Kangundu was shot dead along with his wife, Hélène Mpaka, outside their home in the capital, Kinshasa. Local journalists feared he had been killed for his work as a journalist. Kangundu covered a variety of topics for the newspaper, including the sometimes acrimonious relations between political parties in the DRC’s power-sharing government, as well as business and economic issues. Press freedom and human rights groups protested in Kinshasa on November 7. Vice President Azerias Ruberwa promised the demonstrators an inquiry into the killing.

In May, men in army uniforms shot at reporter Jean Ngandu at his home in Lubumbashi in the troubled southern province of Katanga. Ngandu dropped to the ground and was unharmed. The motive for the attack was unclear, but CPJ sources said it might have been linked to his work as a reporter for Radio Okapi, a station run jointly by the United Nations and the Swiss nongovernmental organization Fondation Hirondelle. Both Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Journaliste en Danger (JED), a press freedom organization based in Kinshasa, noted that Ngandu had reported on an alleged secession attempt in Katanga in late April. Radio Okapi, which is accessible in most of this vast country on FM and shortwave, has become a popular source of independent news.

In the east of the country, where numerous armed groups continued to operate, journalists increased self-censorship after the murder of a prominent human rights activist on July 31, local sources said. Gunmen killed Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi, executive director of Héritiers de la Justice (Heirs of Justice), in Bukavu, near the Rwandan border. The transitional government in Kinshasa, which comprises former combatants, exercised little control in the east.

Journalists reporting on corruption and human rights abuses faced the constant threat of detention without due process, especially under the DRC’s archaic defamation laws. Defamation charges were brought by powerful political, military, and business figures. Most cases did not go to trial, although detainees were often kept for weeks in appalling conditions and had to post bail for their release. In one case, editor Jean-Marie Kanku was abducted at the end of October by the national intelligence agency (ANR) in Kinshasa after his newspaper, L’Alerte, published articles accusing ANR Director Lando Lurhakumbirwa of corruption. Kanku was held incommunicado for a week and his health deteriorated sharply. After 12 days in detention, he was finally brought before a court, which charged him with publishing false information and granted him bail. Kanku was ordered to report to court twice a week and to remain in the country.

Journalists faced frequent harassment, threats, and censorship, often by government officials. In January, broadcasting at two private television stations and a radio station owned by Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the former rebel MLC party, was suspended after the stations aired a press conference critical of Kabila. The same day, Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi tried to restrict broadcast content through a government memorandum that ordered a halt to live phone-in programs. Although the government did not follow through on the ban, Sakanyi said in the memorandum that the president was “sacred,” and that “any attack on him in the written press or broadcast media will be sanctioned in accordance with the law.” The three stations resumed broadcasts two days later, following strong local and international protests.

In April, a provincial governor shut down community broadcaster Radiotélévision Debout Kasaï (RTDK) in the central diamond-mining town of Mbuji-Mayi for two days, claiming that it had incited antigovernment violence. Station management said it had merely reported the news. In June, the director of a community radio station in the central town of Tshikapa went into hiding after another provincial governor called publicly for his arrest. This came after the journalist, Casimir Ntwite, conducted interviews on the postponement of national elections. Tshikapa authorities also harassed and threatened a number of other journalists.

In Kinshasa, security forces harassed and briefly detained journalists covering June 30 opposition protests against the election postponement. They also closed a television station and two radio stations belonging to the privately owned RAGA group, and briefly detained its director over RAGA’s coverage of the demonstrations. On July 1, the High Authority on Media (HAM), an official regulatory body, ordered RAGA’s broadcasts suspended for 10 days, saying that its news coverage was “blatantly partial.” Several local journalists and JED denounced the suspension as politically motivated.

JED itself was the subject of serious threats in 2005. The organization has become a vital source of news on press freedom across the country. Its president, Donat M’baya Tshimanga, and secretary-general, Tshivis Tshivuadi, received death threats in an e-mail in April. They had previously received anonymous threatening phone calls and been maligned on state television. In November, JED was targeted by the daily newspaper L’Avenir, which launched personal attacks on its leaders. L’Avenir is considered close to the ruling PPRD party.

Media regulatory bodies have campaigned to improve professional ethics and remove ethnic and political propaganda from the media. The HAM also imposed sanctions on some media outlets, reprimanding them for what it deemed unethical practices. In June, it banned a discussion program on the private Kinshasa TV station Horizon 33, saying it did not give equal time to participants and lacked balance. It suspended a program on another private TV station, Radio-Télévision Kin Malebo (RTKM), for 60 days, saying that the program “often abuses the open phone line, allowing numerous callers to launch gratuitous accusations, violent and defamatory words against third parties who are often not invited onto the program.”

The HAM is headed by Modeste Mutinga, winner of a 2000 CPJ International Press Freedom Award. While Mutinga is a well-respected veteran of the profession, journalists are concerned that the HAM was subject to political pressures. In 2005, JED twice challenged HAM decisions: the suspension of RAGA broadcasters in June; and the September suspension, without a hearing, of three newspapers. JED called the latter action “totalitarian” and “lacking in independence.” Despite these incidents, JED leader M’baya believed the HAM’s overall record in 2005 was positive. He noted that the HAM had, for example, initiated codes of conduct for media coverage of political parties during the election period, and that it had “brought in some order” on the regulatory front.