Attacks on the Press 2007: Democratic Republic of Congo

The historic November 2006 presidential election–the first since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960–was followed by a yearlong nationwide wave of media abuses as the new administration struggled with rampant unrest, insecurity, and impunity in attacks against media workers. Interim President Joseph Kabila defeated former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba in the divisive 2006 presidential runoff, ending a fragile power-sharing government and marking the start of a difficult transition to democracy.

“The policy of this government is that freedom of the press and freedom of opinion must be respected at all costs,” Kabila declared in an official press conference in September. Yet CPJ research showed that national and regional officials and security forces were responsible for the overwhelming majority of media abuses in 2007. Broadcast outlets were the primary targets. In one notorious week in October, Information Minister Toussaint Tshilombo summarily banned 22 private television channels and 16 radio stations for alleged noncompliance with national media laws, while Higher Education Minister Sylvain Ngabu ordered police to beat two Horizon 33 TV journalists after a critical news program.

Numerous media outlets set up by candidates for the 2006 election were, in turn, targeted by their political rivals after the polls, according to journalist-turned-politician Modeste Mutinga. Mutinga headed the DRC’s High Authority on Media, the official media regulatory agency under the former transitional government, until winning a Senate seat in January. Mutinga, also founder and board chairman of the leading independent daily Le Potentiel, said violence against the press was caused by intolerant politicians, unprofessional journalists, and the “total absence of justice.”

In Kinshasa in March, authorities summarily pulled off the air Canal Congo TV (CCTV), Canal Kin TV, and Radio Liberté Kinshasa–all owned by Bemba–as the stations broadcast a taped interview with Bemba that was critical of the army. Soldiers subsequently ransacked and occupied the stations for a month following a deadly two-day street war with Bemba’s armed guard. The fighting broke out after Bemba, who won a Senate seat after losing the presidential runoff, refused to disband his personal militia because of what he said were safety concerns. Bemba left the country on April 11 and was charged with high treason over his alleged role in the clashes. Authorities threatened to revoke his parliamentary immunity.

Bemba remained in exile in late year, and journalists working for his stations went into hiding for several months for fear of reprisal, according to CPJ research. The stations did not resume broadcasting until August. The airing of a 2006 interview of eastern Congolese rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda the same month led intelligence agents to interrogate CCTV General Manager Stéphane Kitutu O’Leontwa for five hours. In response to a CPJ inquiry about the interrogation, Faustin Fwafa, chief of staff for Information Minister Toussaint Tshilombo Send, asserted that intelligence agents were entitled to question any citizen they deemed to be a national security threat.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, CPJ named the DRC one of the world’s worst press freedom backsliders. The designation was based on dramatic spikes since 2002 in the numbers of imprisoned journalists, criminal libel prosecutions, and attacks. The report came in the midst of a nationwide surge of media abuses–including raids on the offices of eight broadcasters by government forces–after the DRC’s new government took power on February 24. The local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED) denounced “state violence” against the media, citing abuses committed by security forces in a climate of insecurity and impunity.

In a live discussion on U.N.-sponsored Radio Okapi in May, Information Minister Toussaint Tshilombo Send called CPJ’s report “fictitious” and asserted that press freedom was “respected” in his country. He also accused JED–whose secretary-general, Tshivis Tshivuadi, participated in the debate–of  “tarnishing the image of the country” to justify collecting funds from international donors. JED later received what it believed were credible death threats from government supporters, which prompted Tshivuadi and the organization’s president, Donat M’baya Tshimanga, to go into temporary hiding.

Outside Kinshasa, particularly in the DRC’s central and eastern provinces, local politicians sought to silence critical coverage, employing intelligence agents to police the airwaves, closing some stations on purported regulatory violations, and detaining and interrogating journalists about their sources. In one incident in June, agents of the Congolese National Intelligence Agency (known by its French acronym, ANR) forced private Radio Canal Satellite in the province of Western Kasaï off the air for “operating without ANR documents,” and “broadcasting in bad French.”

In the volatile eastern region of the country, despite the presence of the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping force, government security forces as well as rebels targeted the local media with impunity over critical coverage of insecurity, rights abuses, and control of the airwaves. In September, forces loyal to Nkunda looted community radio station Radio Colombe in Rutshuru, kidnapping two reporters and using the station’s equipment to launch broadcasts calling for military support. Nkunda, a Tutsi backed by neighboring Rwanda, had reneged on a January peace agreement calling for the partial integration of his forces into the national army, after accusing the Congolese government of collaborating with the Hutu rebel group FDLR.

A Radio Okapi editor, Basile Bakumbane, fled to Kinshasa from his station in the Western Kasaï town of Kananga after receiving several threats linked to a June 7 story about the sacking of the local governor.

Violence in neighboring North Kivu province claimed the life of respected freelance photojournalist Patrick Kikuku Wilungula. Gunmen shot Wilungula and stole his digital camera as he returned home after covering a local conference on environmental protection. The gunmen, suspected to be soldiers, allegedly argued with the journalist before shooting him, sources close to Wilungula told CPJ. No arrests were reported.

At least two other journalists have been killed in unclear circumstances since 2005: political affairs journalist Franck Ngyke Kangundu and freelance journalist Bapuwa Mwamba. While authorities apprehended and convicted suspects in both cases, investigations fell short of exploring possible links between the killings and the journalists’ work. As Le Potentiel‘s Mutinga put it: “Despite the arrests, the truth was never known, the masterminds never identified. The end results have always been fuzzy.”

The government came under fire in April after a Kinshasa military court convicted four people in the November 2005 murders of Kangundu and his wife at their home. JED and local journalists decried the trial’s failure to establish a motive for the crime after the court sentenced two of the accused to death. In a separate case four months later, the same court convicted four people, sentencing three to die, in the fatal July 2006 shooting of Mwamba in his home.

In late year, lawmakers were drafting legislation to create a new media regulator, the Audiovisual and Communications Superior Council, as well as decriminalizing defamation. Three journalists were sentenced to prison in 2007 on criminal defamation charges following stories alleging official corruption: editor Rigobert Kwakala Kash of the twice-weekly Le Moniteu; editor Pold Kalombo of the private weekly Le Soft International; and Popol Ntula Vita, a correspondent for the private weekly La Cité Africaine. Kash served 35 days of an 11-month sentence before being released on bail. Kalombo and Vita, fearing arrest, went into hiding, according to CPJ research.