Attacks on the Press 2009: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Top Developments
• RFI removed from FM frequencies; other stations censored.
• Hundreds march in nine provinces to protest ongoing threats, violence.

Key Statistic
3: Female journalists threatened with “a bullet to the head” after focusing their work on women’s issues.

Authorities censored coverage of armed conflict and human rights violations in the mineral-rich eastern Kivu provinces. Insecurity reigned in the volatile region, despite the presence of the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping force. Tens of thousands of people continued to die every month from conflict, disease, and famine, while human rights groups detailed pervasive rape and sexual violence. The vast Central African nation remained among the region’s riskiest for journalists three years after it transitioned to democracy in historic U.N.-backed elections. Throughout the country, officials harassed and obstructed journalists who criticized local officials.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In African hot spots,
journalists forced into exile

Country Summaries
Other developments

In July, authorities removed French broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI), a popular source of independent news, from the country’s FM frequencies over its coverage of the conflict in the eastern provinces. Speaking at a press conference in the capital, Kinshasa, Communications Minister Lambert Mendé Omalanga accused the station of “a systematic campaign of demoralization of the armed forces of the DRC,” according to Agence France-Presse. RFI said Congolese authorities faulted the station for citing a July 22 AFP news item that reported on the desertion of ex-rebels who had joined the national army as part of a peace deal. Earlier in the year, the government had blocked RFI broadcasts in the eastern cities of Bunia and Bukavu, citing national security. Omalanga accused RFI reporter Ghislaine Dupont of “attempting to destabilize the country” after the station reported government setbacks in managing the army and the peace process, according to local journalists. Expelled in 2006, Dupont has continued to report on news in the DRC. In a letter to President Joseph Kabila, CPJ protested the government’s actions against RFI as “arbitrary and based on unsubstantiated accusations.”

RFI could still be heard via shortwave, but the loss of its FM broadcasts was significant, Kinshasa-based reporter Charles Mushizi wrote in a guest column on the CPJ Blog. “With the national state media confiscated by the majority political group in power and the private Congolese press weakened by intense financial and political pressures and repression, most Congolese tune to Radio Okapi, a joint project of the Hirondelle Foundation and the United Nations Mission in DRC, and foreign stations like RFI for independent coverage,” Mushizi wrote. “From the viewpoint of government,” Mushizi added, “national interest trumps fundamental freedoms.”

Across the nation, the Congolese national intelligence agency (known by its French acronym as ANR) policed newsrooms and broadcast studios and intimidated reporters who criticized local officials and public figures. ANR agents repeatedly harassed broadcasters in the central city of Mbuji-Mayi, for example. In April, ANR agents interrogated reporter Jean-Pierre Katende of Radio Télévision de l’Eglise Evangélique Libre d’Afrique for many hours after he interviewed a local politician who alleged corruption in the provincial parliament, according to the local press freedom group Journaliste En Danger (JED). In November, ANR agents raided the same station and Radio Télévision Debout Kasaï over commentary concerning road conditions and taxes, according to local journalists. Jeef Tshidibi, director of Radio Télévision de l’Eglise Evangélique Libre d’Afrique, and two employees were detained for 10 hours before being released without charge, according to JED.

Local officials also felt free to silence broadcasters over critical coverage. On March 11, the mayor of the southeastern city of Likasi and provincial authorities closed two private broadcasters, Radio Communautaire du Katanga and Radiotélévision Likasi 4, in connection with their coverage of a railway strike, according to JED. None of the officials appeared to have legal authority to take action against the stations, CPJ research showed. The bans were lifted in May.

More than a decade after the fall of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko led to the establishment of a free, private press, most media outlets are owned by public figures, according to Chantal Kanyimbo, president of the Congolese National Press Union, who said the situation has harmed the independence of journalists. In a phenomenon documented by JED, politicians in power have used security forces to harass their rivals’ partisan media outlets. Kanyimbo added that economic problems, including poor salaries and the absence of a substantial advertising market, have led to unethical practices in the profession. “Journalists are dependent on their sources of information to pay for their transportation,” she noted.

Journalists continued to seek reforms in the Congolese penal code and the 1996 press law, particularly to remove criminal penalties for press offenses such as defamation, according to Kanyimbo. No legislative progress was reported, and some criminal defamation cases proceeded in the courts. In July, a judge in the northwestern city of Mbandaka sentenced freelance journalist Bienvenu Yay to a six-month suspended term and ordered him to pay US$500 in damages in connection with a story critical of the former provincial governor, according to JED. The National Assembly did pass a bill in October establishing a regulatory agency, the High Council for Broadcasting, that many journalists hope will be independent. Kanyimbo called a provision that the council’s nine members have professional media credentials or experience a rare victory for the press.

Kanyimbo and other female journalists have taken notable leadership roles in the Congolese press and have fostered training in the coverage of women’s issues. In South Kivu, which has been devastated by systematic rape, the Association of Women Journalists trained aspiring female journalists and produced radio programs spotlighting women’s issues. Such work drew reprisals. Reporters Delphie Namuto and Caddy Adzuba of Radio Okapi and Jolly Kamuntu of Radio Maendeleo, all members of the Association of Women Journalists, were threatened in an anonymous text message in September. The message, sent to Namuto, said: “You have a bad habit of interfering in what does not concern you to show that you are untouchable. Now, some of you will die so that you shut up. We’ve just been authorized to start with [Adzuba], then Kamuntu, then Namuto: a bullet to the head.”

CPJ wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had visited the eastern city of Goma in August, to urge her to “impress upon the authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo the importance of the safety of human rights defenders, including journalists reporting on the war and its impact on vulnerable sections of the population, particularly women.” In October, hundreds of journalists staged marches in nine provinces to urge authorities to intervene in ongoing threats and violence against journalists. “We wanted to impress on them that the press represents a barometer of democracy,” Kanyimbo told CPJ.

The dangers were greatest in the eastern city of Bukavu, where a reporter was murdered in unclear circumstances. Several assailants stabbed Bruno Koko Chirambiza, 24, a presenter with Radio Star, in August as he was walking home from a wedding with a friend. Chirambiza was found with his personal belongings intact, including a mobile phone and 5,600 Congolese francs (US$7), according to Radio Star Program Director Jimmy Bianga. CPJ was investigating the killing to determine whether it was related to Chirambiza’s work. No arrests were reported, although local journalists said a mob had lynched one person suspected in the attack.

The Chirambiza slaying was the third involving a Bukavu journalist in as many years. Didace Namujimbo, a reporter for Radio Okapi, was shot at close range near his home late one evening in November 2008. The journalist’s brother, Déo Namujimbo, told CPJ that the victim’s cell phone was missing but cash had been left in his wallet. Suspects were identified and detained within days, but little progress has been reported in the courts. The motive remained unclear, and CPJ was investigating to determine whether the killing was related to Namujimbo’s work

Serge Maheshe, an editor and reporter for Radio Okapi, was gunned down in Bukavu in June 2007 as he was preparing to board a U.N. vehicle with two friends, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. The gunmen shot Maheshe several times in the chest and legs; the journalist’s companions were uninjured. CPJ has determined the killing was in reprisal for Maheshe’s work. Three men were ultimately convicted in the murder, but the proceedings were widely criticized for serious violations of the defendants’ basic rights. Journalists, observers, and lawyers were also threatened during the proceedings, according to local and international media. 

The absence of effective law enforcement allowed a culture of threats and violence to continue. In April, Déo Namujimbo received e-mail death threats that noted his involvement in a report by Reporters Without Borders on the murders of his brother and Maheshe, according to news reports. Namujimbo, who was also a leader of the Congolese National Press Union in South Kivu, won political asylum in France and hastily moved his family from the region. “Bukavu, the same city where I found shelter in July 2004 when the men of former warlord Gen. Laurent Nkunda were looking for me over a story about rebel atrocities, was becoming synonymous with deadly insecurity for journalists,” Namujimbo wrote on the CPJ Blog.