Congo’s journalists heavily restricted
Journalists in Democratic Republoc of Congo (DRC) are used to what are usually referred to as “tracasseries” – basically, trouble. Although Congo is as large as Western Europe, every move a journalist makes there is watched.
Foreign journalists under surveillance
All foreign journalists with experience of working in Congo know they must prove themselves acceptable at the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) to avoid receiving insistent phone calls, or even unscheduled visits in their hotel.
To work anywhere on Congolese soil, they have to apply for the “autorisation de reportage” (reporting permit) with the Ministry of Communication and Medias at a cost of $250. But ANR agents can be more aggressive outside main cities like Goma, following journalists around and calling them in, whether they have a work permit or not.
Political parties “erase the journalist profession”
Most of the time, international journalists find these “tracasseries” amusing but locals take them more seriously.
In its annual report, Journaliste en Danger (JED), an independent and impartial organisation for the defense and promotion of press freedom, has denounced “corruption and the systematic bleeding of public speech by political parties” accusing them of “erasing the journalist profession from the public landscape”
In 2011 alone, at least one murder, 42 arrests, 57 threats and attacks, 43 cases of censorship and barriers against information flow, and 17 instances where the media were pressurised were recorded in RDC.
Prohibited from giving the rebels a voice
Statistics are very worrying in the Eastern part of the country, which has been torn apart by successive wars since 1996 and where safety is precarious despite a 2002 peace agreement. Out of eight journalists murdered since the election of president Joseph Kabila in 2006, six were killed in the North and South Kivu provinces.
But journalists and people’s safety in the region has worsened significantly since last April and the birth of the M23 rebel group, with Congolese authorities tightening surveillance of the media.
The Congolese government has been humiliated by former members of the rebel group National Congress for Defence of the People (CNDP) who abandoned the state army (FARDC) they joined after the ratification of an agreement in March 23rd 2009. The CNDP supports Général Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Congolese Media regulation body, the Superior Council of Media and Communication (CSAC), and Lambert Mende, government spokesperson and Minister of Information, Communications and Media, have explicitly forbidden all Congolese media outlets from speaking to the rebels.
“All radios and journalists have been ordered to stop broadcasting information on the situation in the field” says Gisèle Kaj, a journalist at Radio Okapi of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) set up in 2002.
A “patriotic” editorial line
Journalists who do not follow a “patriotic” editorial line expose themselves to trouble. “If the FARDC eliminate the rebels, they send Jeeps to show us where the rebels were, but if we report on defeats of the army, we are taken out of town” AFP correspondent Albert Kambale tells DCMF.
A few media outlets were nearly shut down and several journalists were threatened or attacked. In a report covering the rebels’ march, Gisèle Kaj was intimidated by the governor of the North Kivu Province. She was accused of “jubilation” when the rebels were winning battles and said to be their “accomplice” and “concubine.” The governor is believed to have attempted to get her contract with Radio Okapi terminated.
“Julien Paluku’s entourage started to plan my death” she tells DCMF. “One of them came to see me to warn me. He said on this day at this place, his bodyguards would come to beat me. He added: ‘We know your car and your routine.’”
No access to the rebel areas
Since the beginning of the conflict, the FARDC have been trying to prevent journalists from accessing the rebel zone. Most journalists, including international journalists, prefer to go through Rwanda and Uganda to enter directly into the rebel territory via the border town of Bunagana, which fell into the hands of the rebels on July 6th.
But going into that area remains risky. French journalist Mélanie Gouby based in Goma, and AFP’s Albert Kambale were both detained by the FARDC on their way back from Gisiza where they had interviewed witnesses of the fighting between the army and the rebels.
“We did our job and were stopped on our way back. They put two soldiers in our car and we were taken to a hotel where we had to wait for Colonel Yav who was expected the following day” says Gouby who was finally freed thanks to the help of the AFP and MONUSCO.
“Who do you think you are?”
Gouby is convinced that working as an international correspondent helped resolve the situation. “I don’t think local journalists can allow themselves to do what we did” she tells DCMF. “They would risk jail and probably get their equipment confiscated. The army wouldn’t have second thoughts like they did with us”.
“I’m tired of being afraid” says Alain Wandimonyi, a journalist who works for Syfia Grands Lacs in Goma and received threats after a report shot in the rebel territory was broadcast on France 24. “The military told me: ‘You think you’re not vulnerable, who do you think you are?’ They took my phone and stole my money. It wasn’t the first time.”
When asked how he is dealing with the pressure, Alain replies: “After everything that has happened to me, I have been trying to leave work at 4pm and without my equipment. When I go to town, I make sure someone is coming with me”.
Fighting for press freedom
Meanwhile, the Congolese population is fighting for their right of information. Since Radio Okapi was set up, and thanks to access to international media like Radio France International (RFI), the BBC or Voice of America, the Congolese are completely aware of the faults in their local and national media.
Journalists’ arrests and threats are leading to more demonstrations against repressive actions implemented by the government. “Journalists can only rely on their network and their ability to create indignation” notes Kenny Katombe, a correspondent for Reuters in Goma.
These unofficial solidarity networks between colleagues and friends are now fully functioning. “The plan has been set into motion and it is not stopping. We will never stop speaking and denouncing” he promises.
But the government’s grip on the media remains tight due to the country’s economic weaknesses. Press organisations cruelly lack resources and cannot always pay their employees.
In this context of generalised pauperisation, pressure and corruption easily make way in newsrooms seeking financing and amongst journalists seeking means to make ends meet.
“We receive money if we write a positive piece about governmental organisations” explains Pay Okito Pemé, journalist and editor at Goma-based monthly publication Echo d’Opinions. “Press is bargained and if you speak badly about governmental organisations, you can lose your job. We have to release positive information in their favour.”
For economic reasons and for their own safety, a lot of Congolese media and journalists eventually give in and do the bare minimum – follow the editorial lines dictated by political parties.
Defending and promoting freedom of information in DRC starts with setting up a new economic model for the press sector. Congolese media must find a way to say no.
Julia Sestier is a French photojournalist based in Nairobi. She has been reporting on Democratic Republic of Congo since November 2011.