In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the press freedom group Journaliste en Danger defends and advocates.
By Julia Crawford
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo
It’s visiting time at Centre Pénitentiaire et de Réeducation, and long lines of women in colorful headscarves are waiting to bring food to relatives being held in this dirty, crowded prison.
Charles Mushizi is there, too, as he is every week to visit jailed journalists. Mushizi is legal adviser to the Congolese press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED), and on this Sunday in June five journalists are in jail, including three new arrivals who have been put in “preventive” detention for allegedly defaming local dignitaries. One journalist, a diabetic, is sick from the poor diet and unsanitary conditions at the prison.
Mushizi pushes his way through the crowded paths of the prison, and the journalists are brought, one by one, into a courtyard to meet him and two CPJ representatives. The journalists complain that there is no due process, that conditions are unsanitary. Before Mushizi leaves, he visits the prison director, who promises to move the sick journalist to better facilities. But it will take a stream of follow-up letters from JED before the journalist, Albert Kassa Khamy Mouya, is finally granted a provisional release.
This is the kind of hard, persistent work that JED does every day in this central African nation where journalists still face violence, harassment, and imprisonment. Formed six years ago during the brutal regime of former President Laurent Kabila, JED provides legal and practical help to journalists in danger and presses for government reform.
“Setting up JED was a kind of rebellion against the systematic arrests, beatings, and censorship of the press,” says Donat M’baya Tshimanga, JED’s president since its inception. M’baya and JED Secretary- General Tshivis Tshivuadi, journalists by trade, have been in danger themselves for what they have reported.
In May 1997, Tshivuadi was forced to flee Kinshasa and spend six months in hiding because of an article he wrote in Le Phare (The Lighthouse), the Kinshasa-based daily where he was deputy editor. The article accused former President Laurent Kabila, who had just seized power, of trying to create an ethnic army similar to that of the ousted dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Le Phare‘s editor was arrested the next day, beaten, and tortured, while security agents came hunting for Tshivuadi. When he went into hiding, he says, his family was left without resources, not knowing where he was.
“It made me realize we needed an organization to defend journalists and to protect them,” says Tshivuadi. So M’baya and Tshivuadi began working from a small, unmarked office with just a secretary, writing stories by hand to publicize and protest attacks on the press. JED gained international stature in October 1999, when it became a member of the Canada-based International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), which transmits JED’s alerts around the world. IFEX Outreach Coordinator Kristina Stockwood calls JED “indispensable.”
“Since they have been on the ground, we have an incredibly reliable and credible source of information covering cases we otherwise wouldn’t hear about,” Stockwood says. “Seeing information going out of the country and coming back on the international newswires has also had a good impact on the DRC authorities.”
The uncertainty and danger of JED’s work was highlighted in January 2001, when its leaders were forced underground after Laurent Kabila’s government accused them of working for Rwandan-backed rebels. The charge was as good as a death sentence in a country at war with its eastern neighbors; security agents came hunting for them. It was only after Kabila was assassinated later that month, and his son Joseph became president, that JED reopened.
Now M’baya and Tshivuadi have a team of five people working for them, and the JED logo adorns the office entrance for all to see. Their friends include major international and African press freedom groups, something they believe helps protect them from arrest. Under Joseph Kabila, the DRC has signed on to a peace process leading to democratic elections in 2005; the country’s transitional constitution guarantees press freedom, though officials do not always respect that guarantee.
Attacks on the press remain frequent, as evidenced by the threats, assaults, and imprisonment of several journalists since Rwandan-backed rebels briefly took control of the eastern city of Bukavu in June.
But now, says Tshivuadi, “no case of an attack on the press can go unnoticed. People will know as soon as a journalist is imprisoned, for example. And that pressure contributes enormously to getting them released.”
JED is also asserting itself now politically, leading a campaign to remove criminal penalties for press “offenses” and denouncing abuses of the judicial system. “The biggest danger to the democracy we are trying to build here in Congo is our judicial system,” M’baya says. “If you have no money, you will never win in the courts. Journalists are weak; they have no money. And as soon as someone brings a charge against a journalist, the first thing is that the judge gets them arrested and sent to prison.
“If a journalist denounces a case of corruption, the courts don’t even try to find out if the journalist is right. No, no, the journalist is wrong to denounce corruption, wrong to denounce human rights abuses, wrong to criticize those with political power, to talk about the security situation in the east of the country or contradict the official version put out by the government. Our judicial system is far from independent, and I think it’s a big danger for this country.”
While JED believes that no journalist should be jailed for his or her work, it is concerned about the quality of journalism in the DRC. “Many of the cases we have seen of journalists arrested and imprisoned are because they don’t always respect their code of ethics,” says Tshivuadi. “There are many journalists who have not been to training schools to learn how to collect, process, and distribute information.”
M’baya and Tshivuadi are stepping up JED’s training efforts, particularly in the run-up to next year’s elections, the DRC’s first democratic poll since independence in 1960. For example, a recent workshop with journalists and politicians covered the dangers of “hate media,” a pervasive concern with anti-Rwanda and antiforeigner propaganda still rife in the Congolese press.
While pushing for higher professional standards, JED is also focusing on governmental reform. Any recent gains in press freedom, M’baya says, must be seen in light of one stark fact: Not a single law has been passed to guarantee the public’s right to know, or to protect journalists from criminal liability.
“We have seen all the authorities, we’ve asked them to draft a law that would show they want to change things and that they are different from the old regime,” he says. “They say they came to chase away dictatorship, that they came to install a democratic regime. But they continue to rule using the laws of that dictatorship. And we think that is a contradiction.”
Julia Crawford, CPJ’s Africa Program coordinator, led a two-week mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo in June 2004.