The murder of freelance journalist Bapuwa Mwamba in the weeks before historic national elections cast a deep chill over the media, whose members were already subject to frequent attacks and intimidation. Mwamba was the second journalist to be shot to death in his home in eight months. Attacks on the press rose sharply in the run-up to July 30 parliamentary and presidential polls; the presidential race, which went to a runoff in October, was particularly divisive. Journalists were subject to violence, censorship, and arbitrary imprisonment by government forces, political factions, and rogue elements. Authorities also expelled a foreign correspondent. The courts provided little protection against abuses in this war-ravaged, corruption-plagued country. Partisan and inflammatory reporting in some sections of the media contributed to the political tensions.
The elections were marked by violence. Conflicts between sections of the security forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila and his challenger, former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, killed at least 20 people in the capital, Kinshasa, at the end of August. On November 16, Kabila was announced the winner of the runoff. At least three journalists were arrested covering the aftermath, when Bemba contested the results and the Supreme Court was set ablaze during clashes between his supporters and police.
The election was the first since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960. The polls, boycotted by one of the main opposition parties, were overseen by the United Nations, which has a force of more than 17,000 peacekeepers in the country. Even before Mwamba’s murder, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a June report that he was “concerned by reports of increasing intimidation of the media, which threatens to undermine the transparency of the elections.”
Mwamba bled to death after being shot by men who burst into his Kinshasa home in the early hours of July 8. Local sources said his attackers took only a cell phone. The day before his death, he had published a commentary in the independent daily Le Phare, criticizing Congolese authorities and the international community for what he deemed the failure of DRC’s political transition. The reason for his murder remained unclear, and CPJ continued to investigate the circumstances.
Journalists staged a silent march through the streets of Kinshasa to protest the killing, followed by a one-day news blackout. The marchers presented a memorandum to the United Nations calling for a U.N. investigation into killings, kidnappings, and threats to journalists, and urging it to pressure Congolese authorities to respect the rights of the press. At the end of August, Congolese police told the press they were holding a former soldier and two civilians in connection with Mwamba’s murder, and investigators claimed that the motive was robbery.
It was not until July, just days after Mwamba’s death, that three members of the military went on trial for the November 2005 murder of another journalist, Franck Ngycke Kangundu, and his wife, Hélène Mpaka. Police had presented the three suspects to the press on November 21, 2005. State media suggested in a report the same day that the motive was theft, according to the local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED). However, an investigation by JED found that the killers were not motivated by money and that their actions may have been part of a wider conspiracy. Kangundu was a veteran political affairs writer for the Kinshasa independent daily La Référence Plus. Authorities promised to commission an independent investigation but did not immediately deliver. JED received anonymous threats in connection with its inquiry, forcing JED President Donat M’baya Tshimanga and Secretary-General Tshivis Tshivuadi into temporary hiding in February.
Local journalists faced the constant threat of imprisonment for their work under outdated criminal laws. Those reporting allegations of corruption and human rights abuses were most at risk. Several reporters, editors, and publishers were detained for weeks or months, sometimes without charge and often without trial. Patrice Booto, publisher of the Kinshasa papers Le Journal and Pool Malebo, spent nine months in jail for running stories alleging government corruption at the highest level. He was charged with reporting false information, offending the head of state, and insulting the government. In May, a court handed down a six-month jail term and a fine, ruling that he could go free on payment of the fine, since he had already served seven months in prison. Booto paid the fine, but the state prosecutor appealed, and the journalist remained in jail. He was not freed until August 3, just after the first round of voting in the presidential election.
Media outlets and journalists were subject to frequent violent attacks. In the lawless east, where the United Nations tried to disarm militias, rebels forced Radiotélévision La Colombe in Rutshuru off the air for two weeks in January by looting equipment and terrorizing journalists. In May, Dupont Ntererwa, a journalist in Bukavu with the Centre Lokole radio production studio, an initiative of the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground, was accosted by a group of youths who threatened him over his reporting on insecurity in the town. Ntererwa’s attackers were believed to be linked to demobilized soldiers.
In April, soldiers from the Republican Guard, a military detachment that falls under the president’s authority, attacked journalist Anselme Masua from Radio Okapi as he was trying to report on a military training program in the central city of Kisangani, according to a U.N. spokesman and JED. Radio Okapi is jointly run by the United Nations and the Switzerland-based nongovernmental organization Fondation Hirondelle. And in May, in the southeastern town of Lubumbashi, state-television reporter Ricky Nzuzi was kidnapped, beaten, and abandoned in the bush in an attack that local sources said was linked to his work. In Kinshasa, armed assailants smashed and looted equipment at broadcaster Radiotélévision Message de Vie (RTMV), forcing it off the air. Several sources told CPJ they believed the attackers, although dressed in civilian clothes, were state security agents. A report posted to the Web site of Radio Okapi said they were police. The attack came after a rally by evangelist pastor Fernando Kuthino, whose church owns RTMV and who was jailed after expressing political views at the rally.
Richard Mukendi Mukamba, a cameraman with Radiotélévision Debout Kasai, was beaten and stoned by unidentified attackers while covering a demonstration in the central town of Mbuji-Mayi in June. He was hospitalized with head wounds. The Association of Community Radios called on stations across the country to stage a “day of silence” on June 17 to protest attacks on its members.
In July, on the eve of elections, the government expelled Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent Ghislaine Dupont without any written explanation and despite the fact that she had a valid visa. Dupont said she was fingerprinted and photographed by police, who escorted her to the airport. JED called Dupont’s expulsion a “shameful and scandalous end to a months-long standoff between RFI and the Congolese government, which indicates the desire of certain Congolese authorities to get rid of a journalist who irritates them because of her professionalism and independence.” Several sources told CPJ in May that Information Minister Henri Mova Sakanyi had pressured RFI to withdraw Dupont, while offering to accredit other RFI correspondents. At that time, Mova told CPJ in a phone interview that Dupont’s accreditation was withheld because of alleged violations of accreditation rules and not the content of her work. Mova confirmed, however, that he had met with RFI management in Paris to complain about her. Dupont is known for her well-informed and critical coverage of the DRC.
A U.N. official criticized reporting by some media outlets, many of which have links to political parties or local dignitaries. In August, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative in the DRC, William Lacy Swing, expressed concern about “hate messages” in the local media that he said were inciting Congolese to target and take revenge on “white people and foreigners.” This came shortly after the High Authority on Media (HAM), an official watchdog body, slapped 24-hour bans on three Kinshasa television stations for allegedly inciting violence through what it called “emotionally charged” broadcasts. The stations included state-owned RTNC 1, the pro-Kabila RTAE, and CCTV, owned by presidential challenger Bemba. The stations were targeted for airing images of alleged atrocities by the other side as election results were awaited, according to news reports. The HAM had itself been attacked in July when Bemba supporters emerging from a political rally looted and burned down its offices.