Interview with Modeste Mutinga

International Press Freedom Awards

Interview conducted via e-mail by CPJ Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi, November 2000

Committee to Protect Journalists: Tell us about your arrests.

MUTINGA: I think it would be too draining to list the umpteen times I’ve been arrested or harassed; it happens so often. I’m glad that I still haven’t been thrown in jail this year, only harassed. The latest incident occurred mid-October. I was summoned to the police special services’ office to be told that the authorities found that my newspaper Le Potentiel was publishing information likely to demoralize the nation and the Army in times of war. We had just run a piece on local political developments, which the authorities said was subversive. Most times, the summonses to this or that special police office are for that sort of thing; they generally lead to arrests, or loud admonishments and insults. This past August however I was summoned and asked to write a different version of an article we had run in the paper about a case that was being heard by the Court of Military Order. Upon my refusal to comply, our reporter who had penned the article was arrested and interrogated for 12 hours, then released without charge.

CPJ: Why are you targeted?

MUTINGA: It has to do with the general political situation in my country: the occupation of parts of the country by foreign armies, the stranglehold of the regime on the democratic process and the ban on political activities. In such a context of heightened intolerance, the media are the only way to express oneself. In the fight for the recovery of our civil and political rights, Le Potentiel, which is known for its pro-democracy stand and editorial independence became a favored target for the powers that be. All the arrests and harassment are the expression of their desire to silence us.

CPJ: Describe Le Potentiel. Is it a political paper?

MUTINGA: We are a general information daily paper. But in a country that has never experienced anything close to democracy, a country at war where the economy is in shambles, it’s the political news that readers are interested in. What’s characteristic about Le Potentiel is that it has an agenda, which is to foster democracy and economic development. So we publish a lot of information, news analyses, reports and editorials about democratization, good governance and human rights issues.

CPJ: What do you see as the role of independent journalists (or journalists in general) in your part of the world?

MUTINGA: Aside from their traditional role to inform and uphold the accountability of government to the people, journalists in my country also are the voice of the voiceless. [United Nations Human Rights Commissioner] Mary Robinson was right when, during a recent visit here, she stated that a newspaper should be the mouth of the unfortunate masses that cannot speak for themselves. It’s my deepest conviction that there is no freedom without freedom of expression.

CPJ: What does your profession mean to you?

MUTINGA: This question is best answered by my previous statement. I only need to add that despite their job description journalists must avoid politicking. That is the role of politicians. Journalists must do their job in accordance with the ethics of the profession, with a vision of the future. They must avoid all sorts of dubious compromises with the ruling class in the interest of the silent masses.

CPJ: Has your perception of what it means to be a journalist changed as a result of your arrests?

MUTINGA: Oh no, not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. All this repression only strengthens our belief that we are doing the right thing. It actually helps us keep faith. Every time the paper hits the newsstands and is bought and people send us letters of sympathy we know we are fulfilling our duty, which is to serve the nation’s need for information.

CPJ: Why are the powers that be threatened by journalists like you?

MUTINGA: As I said earlier on, the authorities generally tend to consider independent journalists as politicians and they tend to throw us in the same bag with rebels and those they accuse of serving imperialistic goals. All that because we do not toe the line. Authorities behave like that wherever democracy is non-existent.

CPJ: The civil war in your country is mind-boggling to a lot of people in the outside world. How could journalists contribute in the search for peace?

MUTINGA: In the search for peace, the media should be a forum for free, uncensored speech, for dialogue and positive confrontation of ideas and opinions, because nothing can grow where speech is restricted. While playing this role, the media should avoid sensationalizing the news, which might compromise its true goals. Above all, the media should never be involved in war propaganda.

CPJ: What are the main dangers facing journalists in the DRC today?

MUTINGA: Congolese journalists are routinely made victims of degrading practices, from unjustified arrests to brute beatings, from death threats and annoying anonymous phone calls to expedient trials on bogus charges before a military court whose decisions cannot be appealed. Some of us are arrested and tortured without anyone knowing about it for days or weeks at a time. Others are so intimidated by the repression that they would publish papers to discredit the information they had circulated in a previous report. It may be noteworthy that while four Congolese journalists are currently serving time on spurious charges, not one of our colleagues, to my knowledge, has been killed so far. One strange incident remains unsolved to date however. It’s the disappearance of Magloire Missinoun, a citizen of Benin who was employed in the Congo as editor for the daily Le Point. We never found out what happened to him, and no investigation into his disappearance was ever undertaken.

CPJ: What is the reaction of your colleagues, both inside and outside the DRC, to the arrests and other forms of repression?

MUTINGA: Congolese journalists are united in their misery. Beyond professional ties, many of them are also very close personal friends. When one of them is arrested, the others do what they can do best: they denounce it through loud editorials and letters of protest to the authorities. Outside of Congo, we rely on colleagues as well. International journalists’ groups and press freedom organizations such as CPJ, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Article 19, IFEX, FIJ, etc. Even though their letters of protest generally fail to move the powers that be, they have a huge comforting effect on the journalists [who are] victims of repression.

CPJ: As a newspaper publisher in the DRC, what kinds of difficulties do you face, politically and economically?

MUTINGA: The problems are numerous. In my country, it’s a daily miracle to complete the production cycle and deliver the paper to newsstands. Aside from the political pressure, there are other bottlenecks as well which range from lack of adequate modern equipment to training for journalists, not to mention the restricted access to the ongoing global revolution in information technologies. The economic quagmire the country is experiencing now has forced advertisers to squeeze their purses.

CPJ: In the U.S. journalists try to adhere to an idea of objectivity or fairness in reporting the news. Can journalists be objective in war-torn countries like the DRC?

MUTINGA: It is always possible, and it is actually required, to remain objective in the DRC. But in face of overzealous police and special intelligence services one comes to develop understanding for the colleagues who get scared and give in to self-censorship. Of course, others do it to keep out of the joblessness and poverty that hit Congolese people. Those [people] end up totally corrupt. However, be it political terror or poverty, I believe that there’s no pretext strong enough to excuse the cheapening of journalism. I recommend that journalists who sense they cannot resist corruption change profession.

CPJ: Does the knowledge that your plight is noted by colleagues or free speech groups abroad help you?

MUTINGA: It’s of tremendous help because we feel that our journalistic independence is protected. The attention of the international media community reinforces our belief in our ethics and sense of duty as journalists. Without that support I believe many of us would have already given up in the face of so much repression. It would be of greater help still if our imprisoned colleagues could get some material assistance.

CPJ: You continue to work as a journalist. Why?

MUTINGA: Well, because it’s the only job where one has the right to speak one’s mind. Here in the DRC, even though there still are serious bottlenecks to press freedom, the little voice we manage to air whenever the rule of law and human rights are being violated does stir uneasiness among the ruling class.

CPJ: Do you see hope for press freedom in your country?

MUTINGA: Hope for press freedom in my country will be found in the liberalization of the political scene, and in the search for national consensus and reconciliation. If this process is completed in transparency, it might lead to a country in which the unrestricted rule of law will foster the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberties.