UN troops are seen near Kibumba, north of Goma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, on January 28, 2022. M23 rebels in the eastern Congo recently looted a radio station in Bunagana. (AP/Moses Sawasawa)

M23 rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo loot radio station; reporter Austère Mavilika receives threats

Kinshasa, June 16, 2022 — The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern on Thursday that journalists in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have faced undue safety threats while on the front lines of the conflict between government forces and the M23 armed rebel group.

On the morning of June 13, M23 rebels took control of Bunagana, a city in the eastern North Kivu province, from the Congolese military, according to media reports. That afternoon, M23 members smashed and stole equipment from Community Radio the Voice of Mikeno (RACOM), an independent broadcaster in the city, according to three people familiar with the events who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Separately, Voice of America reporter Austère Mavilika, who has covered the conflict between M23 and the DRC military, told CPJ in a phone interview that he had received threatening phone calls after M23 issued a statement accusing him of siding with the DRC military.

“The safety of journalists working in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is paramount as the conflict between the government and M23 escalates,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator, in Durban, South Africa. “The public, both locally and around the world, needs to have accurate and reliable information about what is happening in the DRC, and this is only possible if journalists are able to work freely and without fear.”

After M23 took control of Bunagana, members of the rebel group went to RACOM’s office at about 5 p.m. and said they wanted to collaborate with the station, according to reports by the African Press Freedom Observatory (OLPA) and Journalistes en Danger (JED) press freedom groups and André Byamungu, the director of the station, who spoke to CPJ over the phone.

Byamungu said the station’s staff did not trust the soldiers, so each employee left the office under the pretext of going to find food and went into hiding. When the soldiers realized that the staff members would not return, they destroyed and stole the broadcaster’s equipment, according to the people who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity.

OLPA reported that the rebels stole a transmitter, 12 solar panels, two mixers, eight computers, three microphones, generators, and decoders.

Mavilika, a reporter for the U.S. Congress funded-broadcaster VOA’s Swahili service who has covered the conflict while embedded with the DRC military, told CPJ that he had received threatening phone calls since April from unidentified people accusing him of supporting the DRC forces, known as the FARDC.

In a May 23 statement that CPJ reviewed, M23 spokesperson Willy Ngoma accused Mavilika of being a “FARDC reporter.” The journalist said he then received a call on June 1 from an anonymous person who said, “You have hatred towards us. Soon you will be captured with the FARDC soldiers.”

CPJ called Ngoma for comment, but he did not answer.