As elections approach, fear of more attacks on Congolese press

Map by Rachael Levy. Sources: Congolese organizations, news reports, and CPJ research. Not all data has been independently verified by CPJ.

Tensions are rising in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after a government official announced recently he would support a change in the constitution to allow President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, to run for a third term in 2016. Under the current constitution, Kabila may serve a maximum of two five-year terms.

Hundreds of Congolese demonstrators protested last week in the capital of Kinshasa against attempts to change the constitution, according to news reports. The revision could be subject to a national referendum during next year’s municipal and local elections, said Evariste Boshab, the general-secretary of the pro-Kabila People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, who announced his support.

Journalists and observers expect conditions to worsen for the media as elections approach. Already journalists in the DRC face censorship, threats, and violence from sources ranging from the Congolese police, army, information services, and the government, according to CPJ research.

“Elections are always seen as a time when power can shift, and this makes leaders very insecure–the longer they’ve been in power, the more insecure,” Anjan Sundaram, who has been reporting from Congo since 2005, told CPJ in an email.

Freedom for Journalist (FFJ), a Kinshasa-based press freedom organization, told CPJ in an email that it expected journalists to be “the target of diverse attacks (imprisonment, harassment, threats, physical aggressions, assassinations)” as they were in the 2011 elections, which were marred by violence and allegations of fraud.

Broadcasting political debates can result in authorities accusing journalists of calling for violence, Nick Elebe, DRC country manager for the Open Society Institute for Southern Africa, told CPJ.

“These are the kind of things that journalists are asking opposition leaders: if [President] Kabila changes [the constitution], what will you do? And they say, ‘we will go out to the streets, we will protest,'” Elebe said. “They can assimilate that speech as a call to violence. They can say you are calling on people to go to the street.”

Congolese elections generally occur in a climate of tension and intolerance, Tshivis Tshivuadi, secretary-general of the Kinshasa-based press freedom organization Journaliste en danger (JED), told CPJ in an email. It “is a cause for concern for the safety of journalists, who can then be exposed to all sorts of retaliation,” Tshivuadi said.

FFJ, the Congolese press freedom organization, said it plans to re-establish confidence between public authorities and the press by organizing conferences between journalists, police, and the Congolese national electoral commission. The organization added that it plans to provide journalists with gear such as vests and helmets, as well as security training.

While not directly related to elections, the press in DRC have suffered several attacks this year. Journalists from Molière TV, a broadcast station based in Kinshasa, were reporting on a motorcycle taxi driver protest on July 22 outside their news bureau when local police accused them of disturbing the peace. The officers beat them, stole their money, and destroyed their cameras, the journalists told CPJ in a telephone interview.

A week later, a journalist working for a different channel was arrested while shooting video of another motorcycle taxi driver protest in Kinshasa, according to Journaliste en danger. The journalist was released after two hours without charge, JED said.

Armed men visited radio journalists David Munyaga and Bienvenu Malega starting May 31 and threatened their families in South Kivu, forcing the men into hiding, according to Journaliste en danger and Radio France Internationale (RFI). Munyaga told JED the armed men were from the army of neighboring Burundi, but the army denied involvement, according to RFI. The journalists were accused of providing information to Burundian media related to the military training of a group of young Burundian men by Burundi’s ruling political party, JED said.

In February, a journalist, Germain Kennedy Mumbere Muliwavyo, was shot and killed in crossfire while he was riding in a Congolese military vehicle in North Kivu, according to CPJ research.

Government officials are also censoring the press in the mineral-rich Katanga province in the southeastern region.

In the city of Kolwezi, the communications chief in May banned local media from disseminating certain statements by traditional leaders without the express permission of the political and administrative authorities, according to JED. The director of a radio-TV broadcaster in the city told JED that the ban followed a statement by a tribal chief criticizing a mining company.

Communications Minister Lambert Mende and adviser Mandack Katago did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.

In Katanga, as in other parts of the country, the state’s presence outside of capitals can be weak, according to Elebe of the Open Society Institute for Southern Africa. This allows powerful mining companies to influence local and administrative leaders, posing difficulties for journalists who report on pollution or corruption, Elebe said.

Congolese journalists run greater risks reporting on sensitive subjects, such as the armed conflict in the eastern part of the country, than foreign journalists and sometimes avoid such topics all together, a Congolese radio journalist who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals told CPJ in an email. Heads of news control coverage “through censorship, as if they were the government, by refusing to report information that goes against the interests of those in power,” the journalist said.