• Government arrests several journalists on defamation charges.
• Journalists fear repression as 2011 presidential election approaches.
2: Weeks that reporter Tumba Lumembu was held incommunicado by intelligence agents.
On the defensive over criticism of its human rights record and its handling of the conflict with rebels in eastern Congo, President Joseph Kabila’s government censored news coverage and detained several journalists during the year.
THE PRESS: 2010
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Given the government’s record of press harassment, local journalists and the Kinshasa-based press freedom group Journaliste En Danger (JED) expressed fears that the government would ratchet up repression in the year before presidential elections scheduled for November 2011. JED leaders themselves were summoned by security services three times in 2010 for unspecified reasons, although they declined to report in each instance, JED President Donat Mbaya said. The historic 2006 presidential and parliamentary vote, the first since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960, was marked by arrests, censorship, and attacks on the press, CPJ research showed. With leading opposition figures Jean-Pierre Bemba and Etienne Tshisekedi in exile, President Kabila appeared the favorite to win re-election in November 2011, the second polls since the end of the 1998-2003 war, which claimed an estimated 5 million lives. But divisions within Kabila’s ruling coalition, the jailing and murders of critics, lingering poverty, an expiring mandate for international peacekeepers, and persistent conflict in the eastern provinces sowed political uncertainty.
The mysterious death in June of leading human rights activist Floribert Chebeya also stirred fears of worsening repression. Chebeya, head of Voix des Sans Voix, or Voice of the Voiceless, was found dead in his car, hands tied behind his back, shortly after he was summoned for a meeting with national police chief John Numbi. His last text message to his wife said the appointment had been cancelled.
Those concerns grew after the October death in a military camp of a man arrested for throwing rocks at Kabila’s motorcade. Authorities claimed the man committed suicide, but relatives said he had been mistreated in custody. Kabila addressed criticism of his country’s human rights record in October at a summit of Francophone government leaders from around the world. “The Congolese government is determined to ensure that any crime–whether it is against a journalist or against the population in Kinshasa, in the east, or in the whole country–does not remain unpunished,” Agence France-Presse quoted the president as saying.
Most press freedom abuses occurred in western Bas-Congo province, home of the capital, Kinshasa, and seat of the national government, according to CPJ research. Authorities detained several journalists in Bas-Congo on criminal defamation complaints filed by officials over stories detailing alleged corruption and poor governance. In November, for example, a Kinshasa magistrate sentenced Achille Kadima Mulamba, publisher of Africa News, to eight months in prison on charges of defaming a development official in a story alleging embezzlement of public funds, according to local journalists. Mulamba was free on appeal, which was pending in late year.
The Congolese national intelligence agency (known by its French acronym ANR) continued to engage in long-standing anti-press practices, making arbitrary arrests and detaining journalists incommunicado. In September, Tumba Lumembu, a reporter for the newspaper Tempête des Tropiques, disappeared in ANR custody for two weeks before inquiries from the U.N. stabilization mission in Congo forced the agency to acknowledge his detention, according to JED. A public prosecutor eventually charged Lumembu with insulting the head of state in remarks the journalist allegedly made on the street, but colleagues saw the arrest as a reprisal for his political columns, which criticized the administration. Lumembu was released from Kinshasa’s Penitentiary and Reeducation Centre in November, human rights lawyer Jean-Claude Katende told CPJ.
In an October interview with CPJ, Communications Minister Lambert Mende Omalanga acknowledged that journalists had been detained unlawfully by local and military officials who exceeded their authority. The United Nations–which operated the world’s largest peacekeeping force in the country–issued a report in October detailing hundreds of atrocities committed by Congolese security forces and armed groups as well as the military forces of eight other African states during a period of political crises, regional wars, and conflicts between 1993 and 2003. In 2010, brutal sexual violence and killings continued in the mineral-rich eastern provinces as marauding Rwandan Hutu insurgents and other armed militias terrorized civilians.
The national government used the pretext of safeguarding the morale of troops fighting rebel groups in the east to suppress critical news coverage. In April, for instance, a Kinshasa public prosecutor ordered the imprisonment of Jullson Eninga, editor of the daily Le Journal, on treason charges stemming from his September 2009 decision to publish a statement from the Rwandan Hutu rebel group Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, according to local journalists and news reports. The FDLR statement had accused the government of involvement in the massacres of Rwandan Hutu refugees in North Kivu earlier that summer. A Kinshasa judge acquitted Eninga in September 2010 and ordered the journalist, who had been detained for five months, to be freed, according to local journalists.
After banning Radio France Internationale (RFI) from the airwaves for more than a year, the government allowed the station to resume FM broadcasting in October. The government had singled out reporter Ghislaine Dupont’s critical coverage of the military, including reports saying that troops had gone unpaid, when it censored RFI in 2009. But the ban was unpopular among the public, which had relied on RFI as an independent source of news. JED collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition seeking an end to the ban. In the months before its broadcasting resumed, RFI announced the opening of a bureau in Kinshasa and named senior reporter Bruno Minas as bureau chief. Communications Minister Omalanga told CPJ the government had lifted its ban unconditionally, but warned that “demoralizing our army, which is at the front line, must stop.”
One journalist was slain in eastern Congo under unclear circumstances. Armed men in military uniforms shot freelance journalist Patient Chebeya in front of his home in the volatile North Kivu city of Beni. Chebeya, 35, had just returned from editing video footage of a customs official’s visit to the city. His wife, a witness, told local reporters that the gunmen declared they had been sent to kill Chebeya.
The arrest, conviction, and sentencing of three soldiers in the Chebeya case–all within 12 days of the murder–raised concerns among local human rights defenders. The haste with which authorities acted “compromised a serious, thorough, and professional investigation,” Gilbert Kambale, a Beni civil-society leader, told CPJ in April. The proceedings, which resulted in death sentences for two suspects and a five-year prison term for a third, did not shed light on a motive for the crime or on the circumstances, according to local journalists. It was also not clear whether the death sentences would be carried out. Chebeya’s widow said the suspects did not match the appearance of the killers, an assertion that prompted JED to call for a retrial. Authorities have been criticized before–notably in the 2007 slaying of journalist Serge Maheshe–for rushing journalist murder cases to trial and trumping up charges against innocent defendants.
The Congolese private press was largely financed by powerful public figures, and journalists operated under intense political and financial pressure, according to CPJ research. “Today, the disquieting scourge undermining press freedom is corruption,” said Mbaya of JED, explaining that few journalists had professional qualifications or resources to conduct independent reporting. In the run-up to the 2006 elections, wealthy businesspeople vying for political office launched dozens of media outlets to support their campaigns, according to CPJ research.