On the night of August 13, 2021, three unidentified assailants killed Joël Mumbere Musavuli, director of the privately owned broadcaster Radio Télé Communautaire Babombi (RTCB), in his home in Bucha-Kenya village in Mambasa Territory, an administrative region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s restive northeastern Ituri province, according to a report by the French public broadcaster Radio France Internationale, a statement by the Observatory of Press Freedom in Africa (OLPA), a press freedom group, Katembo Sekanabo Samuel-Don, a former colleague and cousin of Musavuli’s, who spoke to CPJ via WhatsApp, and Syambithe Evelyne Masika, the journalist’s wife, who spoke to CPJ via phone.
The assailants broke into Musavuli’s home at around 10:00 p.m. and attacked him with machetes and spears, stabbing him in the ribs and slicing off a part of his ear and cheek, Masika told CPJ. Images of Musavuli’s body reviewed by CPJ show him with a bruise on his neck and bleeding from wounds on his head and his chest. Masika told CPJ that Musavuli died on the spot.
Masika said that the men also attacked her, pushing her to the ground and leaving her with a wound on her neck. Katembo, who works as a director of another station in the region, Radio Communautaire de Lwemba, told CPJ that Masika received treatment at a medical center in the city of Beni. Masika told CPJ she was hospitalized for two weeks.
Masika told CPJ that the assailants were in civilian clothes, that they identified themselves as members of the Mai-Mai, a local militia, and that they shouted at Musavuli about “what he has been announcing on the radio,” accused him of reporting that the Mai Mai were in the area, and dared him to “speak again” as they attacked him. Mwami Salamabongo, a chief in the city of Biakato–where the RTCB offices are located–told Agence France-Presse that the journalist had been killed by men suspected to be Mai-Mai.
The Mai-Mai, whose name derives from the word for “water” in the local dialect of Kiswahili, are a group of militias operating in the eastern DRC, an area where there are over 100 active armed groups, according to media reports. In response to violence in the region, President Félix Tshisekedi in May declared a 30-day rule by martial law–known as a “state of siege”–in parts of eastern DRC including Ituri province, according to media reports. The state of siege was extended several times and remained active when Musavuli was killed, according to media reports.
Musavuli, who also hosted the weekly “Raia Funguwa Macho” (“Open Your Eyes, Citizens”) radio program on RTCB, had received threats in the days leading up to the attack, according to a report by the news website Congo Rassure and a statement by the press rights group Journalistes En Danger (JED). Congo Rassure did not specify the source of the threats, but the JED statement said they came from people claiming to be part of the army and armed groups in the region.
Gilbert Kasereka, coordinator of the Convention to Respect Human Rights (CRDH), an organization that defends human rights in Mambasa, told CPJ via messaging app that he appeared as a guest on Musavuli’s program on July 26, to discuss martial rule in the region. Kasereka said that the discussion was critical of authorities and argued that the military’s infringement on basic human rights–including through arbitrary imprisonment and torture–under the pretext of enforcing the state of siege was a breach of the constitution. In its statement, JED said Musavuli’s radio show also denounced alleged violations by armed groups in the region. Kasereka said the journalist sent him a message a week before the attack, saying that he was receiving threats from military agents because of that show. Kasereka said he told Musavuli to “take precautions.”
Katembo also told CPJ that Musavuli sent him a message a few days before his death, saying that military intelligence agents were looking for him. In that message, Musavuli further said that there were plans to arrest him in connection to the “Raia Funguwa Macho” show. Esdras Tsongo, an AFP correspondent in the region who covered Musavuli’s killing, told CPJ that he believed Musavuli was attacked in connection with this program.
Musavuli had been detained by authorities prior to his killing, according to the statement by JED. On August 10, military personnel enforcing a night-time curfew arrested Musavuli, among a group of other people, in the village of Bucha-Kenya, according to Kasereka. Masika told CPJ that the soldiers beat her husband with a stick, but that they released him the following morning after realizing he was a journalist. Katembo and Masika told CPJ that other people arrested alongside Musavuli were only freed after they paid a goat, and that a village chief warned the journalist that he was in danger, because his release without payment raised suspicions among locals.
Musavuli, 35, is survived by four children, according to Katembo. Prior to working at RTCB, Musavuli worked at Radio Communautaire de Lwemba, a community radio station, according to Katembo.
Ngoy Sengelewa, the head of the police in the region, was quoted by JED as saying that investigations into Musavuli’s killing were ongoing. In a phone interview on August 25, Katembo told CPJ that four suspects had been arrested in connection to Musavuli’s killing. CPJ was not able to independently confirm the arrests or determine the identities of those men or whether they had been charged in court.
In March 2021, CPJ documented security personnel threatening RTCB and another station in the region, in connection to their reporting on allegations of torture at a military camp. In 2019, RTCB, Radio Communautaire de Lwemba, and another broadcaster in the region temporarily stopped operations following threats and the killing of one journalist, Papy Mumbere Mahamba, as CPJ reported at the time. Musavuli, who worked at Radio Lwemba at the time, told CPJ that the broadcasters were facing threats from armed groups, due to their coverage of the Ebola response in the region.
When called by CPJ on August 30, 2021, Lieutenant-General Jonny Luboya Nkashama, governor of Ituri, confirmed he was aware of Joel’s murder but need more time to provide further information. Army spokesperson Jules Ngongo did not respond to a September 8, 2021, SMS message from CPJ requesting comment.