Attacks on the Press in 2008: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Two years after transitioning to democracy in historic U.N.-backed elections, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was one of the most perilous countries in Africa for journalists. For the fourth consecutive year, a journalist was murdered in unclear circumstances, this time in the unstable, strife-torn east of the country.

A rebellion of ethnic Tutsis led by Congolese renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda flared into heavy fighting in September, displacing 250,000 civilians, by U.N. estimates. Journalists operating in the war zone of the far eastern province of North Kivu were caught in the crossfire between the Congolese army, pro-government militias, and Nkunda’s fighters from the National Congress for the Defense of the People.

Nkunda claimed that he was stepping in to protect the country’s Tutsi minority from Hutu militias after government forces had either failed to take action or, in some instances, colluded with the militias. Tension between Tutsis and Hutus has run deep since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Adding to this volatile mix was a scramble for control of valuable mineral deposits, particularly columbite-tantalite, or coltan. Tantalum, a metal with unique qualities that is used in cell phones and computers, is extracted from coltan.

On November 4, a rebel assault on the town of Kiwanja, 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the border town of Goma, the capital of North Kivu, forced Radio Communautaire Ushirika to suspend its programs and close. Staffers fled during chaotic fighting, and rebels looted the station, the only broadcaster in Kiwanja. It had been airing government press statements and interviews with officials about the security situation, according to the station’s director, Jean-Baptiste Kambale.

The same day, while driving from Kiwanja to Goma, Belgian journalist Thomas Scheen, Congolese interpreter Charles Ntiricya, and driver Roger Bangue were kidnapped by pro-government Maï-Maï militiamen. Scheen, a correspondent for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, had been covering the security situation in Kiwanja, Ntiricya later told CPJ. The militiamen seized their valuables, then gave the men over to a militia commander, who demanded US$800 to let them go. Unable to pay the amount, they were led 25 miles (40 kilometers) on foot to a senior Maï-Maï political figure who handed them over to the Congolese army. They were picked up by U.N. peacekeepers after three days.

At least four other broadcasters in North Kivu pre-emptively shut down during fighting in early November, fearing looting, according to Kambale, who also runs the Network of Radio and Television Broadcasters of Eastern Congo. Dorika FM, a station in Nyamilima, near the endangered mountain gorilla reserve of Virunga, broadcast public service announcements about missing people, according to Kambale.

The instability spilling over from North Kivu endangered the safety of journalists in the neighboring provinces. In October, reporter Jean-Paul Basila of the U.N.-sponsored network Radio Okapi in the restive Ituri region, went into hiding after receiving threats. Basila said the threats came from Congolese army officers over perceived unfavorable coverage during fighting with the local militia group Front Populaire Pour la Justice au Congo.

On November 21, unidentified gunmen killed Radio Okapi journalist Didace Namujimbo near his home in the South Kivu capital of Bukavu. Bukavu prosecutor Jacques Melimeli told Radio Okapi that the journalist had been shot once in the neck. In December, Melimeli announced that the case was being transferred to a military court because the murder weapon was a Kalashnikov rifle. No arrests had been made in late year. The journalist’s brother, Déo Namujimbo, also the local vice president of the Congolese National Press Union, told CPJ that only Namujimbo’s cell phone was missing; $50 remained in his wallet. Neighbors said they had heard a heated exchange between the journalist and gunmen shortly before the shooting, according to news reports. Namujimbo had not reported any threats, according to local journalists.

Radio Okapi’s Bukavu bureau chief, Forien Barbey, said the killing underscored the exceedingly dangerous situation for journalists. U.N. vehicles routinely escorted Radio Okapi journalists to and from work, he said, and yet they were still targeted. Barbey said the broadcaster had asked staffers to begin systematically reporting all threats.

Namujimbo was the second Radio Okapi journalist murdered in a little more than a year in Bukavu. Assistant Editor Serge Maheshe, 31, was killed in June 2007.

In May, a Bukavu military tribunal upheld death sentences handed down in August 2007 against three men in the Maheshe slaying, but tossed out the convictions of two of the journalist’s friends. The retrial, which began in February, was criticized by the U.N. mission in DRC for “many and serious violations of the basic rights to a fair trial,” such as the presumption of innocence and the proper handling of evidence. It failed to establish a clear motive for the crime.

Justice also faltered in the murder case of freelance photojournalist Patrick Kikuku Wilungula, who was gunned down in August 2007 in Goma. The killers took Wilungula’s camera. More than a year later, no arrests had been made. In November, Jean-Blaise Bwamulundu, a Goma military prosecutor, told CPJ that separate civil and military investigations were ongoing.

In the capital, Kinshasa, security forces sought to silence independent broadcasters who aired critical views of President Joseph Kabila and his government. Journalists were frequently detained and questioned about their editorial decisions, according to CPJ research.

Intimidation tactics were used in September, when the private broadcaster Global Télévision aired a news conference in which opposition politician Ne Muanda Nsemi blamed government officials for the conflict in the east. A few hours after the broadcast, uniformed police officers and armed plainclothes agents forced the station off the air and seized broadcasting equipment, according to the press freedom group Journaliste en Danger, or JED. Security agents also arrested technician Daudet Lukombo. A magistrate later charged Lukombo with “incitement to rebellion”—a nonexistent charge in the Congolese penal code, according to legal experts. The charge was dismissed, but Lukombo spent 16 days in detention. The station returned to the air after a week.

On November 19, agents of the Congolese National Intelligence Agency, (known by its French acronym, ANR) raided Raga Télévision while the station was airing an interview with opposition lawmaker Roger Lumbala. In the interview, the politician criticized Kabila’s sacking of the army chief and the opening of a presidential office in parliament. The agents confiscated a tape of the interview and detained editors Mbuyi Bwebwe and Rosette Mamba, reporter Robert Muïla, and two technicians. The five staffers were released two days later, but Editor-in-Chief Jules Mwamba went into hiding fearing arrest, according to local journalists.

Kabila’s health was another sensitive topic for the news media. Plainclothes ANR agents seized L’Interprète Editor Nsimba Ponte on March 7 after his Kinshasa-based biweekly ran several columns criticizing the president and discussing a gunshot wound he purportedly suffered. (No such injury was publicly confirmed.) The ANR arrested Davin Tondo, Ponte’s assistant, three weeks later. Both men were held incommunicado without charge for nearly three months. They were not taken to court until June 6, when they were charged with spreading false rumors, threatening state security, and offending the head of state, according to JED.

Speaking to CPJ by telephone from Kinshasa’s Penal and Re-education Center in June, Ponte said he was being held in a cell with some 20 other inmates. In a letter to then-Congolese Justice and Human Rights Minister Symphorien Mutombo Bakafua Nsenda, CPJ appealed for the release of both men. The letter was prompted by reports of Ponte’s poor health and a government prosecutor’s admission that their months-long pretrial detentions were illegal. Yet they were denied bail. In November, JED reported, a Kinshasa magistrate convicted the pair, sentencing Ponte to 10 months in prison and Tondo to nine months. Both remained in prison when CPJ conducted its annual census of jailed journalists on December 1.

The case was part of an ongoing pattern of extrajudicial arrests and detentions in which journalists were held beyond what was authorized by the Congolese Constitution. A human rights report released by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in DRC found that authorities systematically violated a constitutionally set 48-hour limit for detentions without charge.

Journalists were assaulted in the line of duty, and the assailants routinely went unpunished. In November, members of the ruling Unified Lumumbist Party assaulted and held hostage five camera operators after a scuffle at party headquarters, according to JED. Party members confiscated tapes and smashed the equipment of Jean-Claude Bode of Tropicana TV, Mutombo Kabeya of Africa TV, Olivier Mbuilu of Congoweb TV, Jose Ngalamulume of Global TV, and Yves Songila of Horizon 33 TV, according to local journalists.

In April, aides to Pedro Gomez Ngoma, the consul general of neighboring Angola in the southern city of Lubumbashi, assaulted News Director Jean-Pierre Ndolo and reporter Pascal Luboya of Radio Télévision Mwangaza. Station Director Rose Lukano told CPJ the attack was linked to an exclusive 2006 story on unlawful voter registration of Angolans in the lead-up to DRC’s historic elections. Ndolo filed a complaint for assault and battery after two days in the hospital.

Authorities applied legal restrictions against media outlets as well. On September 9, then-Communications Minister Emile Bongeli banned three private radio stations and five television stations from the airwaves based on alleged regulatory violations involving tax payments and documentation, according to a decree obtained by CPJ. The stations appealed, but most remained off the air in late year.

In September, during a legal dispute over frequency allotment, Bongeli ordered police to impound the broadcasting equipment of the popular Kinshasa station Molière Télévision. Bongeli awarded the station’s frequency to TVS1, a station owned by Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito, and refused to comply with a court ruling reversing his decision, according to local journalists. Molière remained off the air since the September 26 early-morning raid.

Libel remained a criminal offense despite talk of reform. In February, a court in the central town of Mwene-Ditu sentenced reporter Justin Kabasele of RadioTélévision Kasaï Horizons to a year in prison and fined him 750,000 francs (US$1,300). The ruling was linked to a 2007 broadcast critical of a municipal employee. Kabasele was free pending an appeal. In a rare victory for the press, a Kinshasa court dismissed a defamation complaint brought by the governor of the northwest Equateur province against newspaper editor Achille Kadima Mulamba. A column in Mulamba’s weekly Africa News discussed Gov. José Makila’s supposed plans to succeed Jean-Pierre Bemba as the chairman of opposition party Movement for the Liberation of Congo. Bemba, a former rebel leader, was arrested in May in Belgium on international war crimes charges. A trial was pending in the Bemba case.

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