A motorcyclist rides past the Parliament of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kinshasa in February 2023. In April, Congolese authorities enacted new laws governing the press and online activity. (AFP/Alexis Huguet)

DRC enacts press law and digital code that criminalize journalism

New York, May 23, 2023—DRC authorities should swiftly reform the country’s new press law and digital code to ensure journalism is not criminalized and the media can work without undue restrictions or fear of prosecution, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.

In April, Congolese authorities enacted new laws governing the press and online activity, according to multiple media reports and CPJ’s review of the legislation. The latest press law contains sections that enable authorities to criminally prosecute journalists for their work, including for sharing “false news.” Under the new digital code, authorities are granted powers to imprison journalists for sharing information electronically.

CPJ has repeatedly documented how journalists in the DRC have been arrested, accused of alleged crimes–including defamation and sharing false information–and criminally prosecuted in connection with their work. At least two journalists, Patrick Lola and Diègo Kayiba, are presently jailed in the country.

“DRC lawmakers seem to have squandered a massive opportunity to curb the criminalization of journalism, and should swiftly pursue additional reforms to ensure journalists in their country are never again jailed for their work,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “It’s particularly tragic that while the DRC government promoted its new press law as a step forward, journalists Patrick Lola and Diègo Kayiba remain behind bars. They should be freed at once.”

Several sections of the press law, which replaced legislation from 1996, offer opportunities for journalism to be criminalized without detailing specific punishments. 

Section 113 says, “offenses by the online press are punished in accordance with the legislation in force in criminal matters.” Section 123 says the “publication, dissemination or reproduction” of “false news” is punishable under the penal code, or the code of military justice if that media is made in “bad faith” and has “shaken discipline or the morale of the armies or has hindered the war effort of the nation.” 

The penal code will also be used to punish anyone who commits a press offense against “magistrates, civil servants and agents vested with public authority,” according to Section 124.

In 2022, the DRC Ministry of Communication and Media organized meetings with media stakeholders that resulted in recommendations, including decriminalizing press offenses. This recommendation appears not to have been applied.

Under Section 360 of the new digital code, journalists convicted of relaying false information electronically could face six months in prison or a fine of 1 million francs (US$430). 

Additionally, journalists could face two years in prison and a fine of 10 million francs (US$4,330) for electronic communications that “coerce, intimidate, harass or provoke emotional distress in a person” to encourage “behavior hateful, tribal and hostile to good morals and patriotic values,” according to section 358 of the code. Section 359 carries the same penalty for harassment when the sender of an electronic communication should have known it would “gravely affect” the “tranquility of the targeted person.”

Section 192 of the digital code prohibits using “personal data” to “harm people or their reputation,” with only narrow public interest exceptions. That section did not indicate specific punishments for violations, but Section 325 states that infractions are prosecuted under the code of criminal procedure. 

A Hungarian court’s interpretation of EU data privacy legislation has been used to prevent the publishing of news. CPJ raised concerns over similar implications of a 2020 draft of Nigeria’s data protection bill.

In early April, a prosecutor ordered Kayiba detained over tweets criticizing the head of the country’s General Inspectorate of Finance. Kayiba’s request for provisional release was denied, and he was transferred to Makala central prison in the capital, Kinshasa, according to his lawyer, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity. 

On April 14, journalist Gustave Bakuka was briefly detained and accused of “spreading false rumors” concerning an article he wrote and shared in a WhatsApp group discussing security issues, according to Kayiba’s lawyer.

CPJ’s calls to DRC Minster of Communication and Media Patrick Muyaya and Digital Minister Désiré-Cashmir Eberande did not receive any response.