By Shout-Africa – KINSHASA, Dem. Rep. of Congo – Reporters Without Borders and Journalist in Danger (JED), its partner organisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said they are alarmed about the situation of press freedom in this country on the eve of the 50th anniversary of its independence. As many foreign leaders arrive in Kinshasa for tomorrow’s celebrations, the two organisations have called on the Congolese authorities and the international community to work together to improve the climate for journalists.
In particular, they call on Belgium – which will be represented by King Albert at the celebrations and which takes over the European Union’s rotating president on 1 July – to ensure that the issue of the safety of journalists in the DRC and in central Africa in general is on the EU’s agenda.
“It would be incomprehensible and unacceptable if the independence anniversary celebrations were to limit themselves to a complacent review of the past 50 years and were to hide the difficulties of the present and the challengers of the future,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. “Journalists working in the DRC are exposed to an extremely hazardous environment including the possibility of murder or imprisonment. The time has come to loosen the vice that is throttling freedom of information.”
Journalist in Danger president Donat M’Baya Tshimanga added: “Aside from the celebrations and festivities, this golden jubilee should serve to highlight the problem of democracy in our country, which is now in retreat after the hopes raised by the 2006 election.”
The celebrations have been affected by the shockwaves from the murder earlier this month of one of the country’s leading human rights activists, Floribert Chebeya, the head of an organisation called The Voice of Those without a Voice. Other journalists and human rights defenders have been murdered in the past five years.
They include Franck Ngyke and Bapuwa Mwamba, killed in Kinshasa in 2005 and 2006, Mutombo Kayilu, stabbed to death in Kisanga, on the outskirts of Lubumbashi (in Katanga province) in 2006, Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi, Serge Maheshe and Didace Namujimbo, murdered in Bukavu (in Sud-Kivu province) from 2005 to 2008, Patrick Kikuku, killed in Goma (in Nord-Kivu province) in 2007, and finally Patient “Montigomo” Chebeya Bankome in April of this year in Béni (Nord-Kivu).
In some of these cases, such as those of Kikuku and Kayilu, no judicial proceedings were ever initiated. In other cases, trials were held but they fell far short of international standards and were often based on botched investigations. They either ended inconclusively or in death sentences being imposed on suspects who guilt was very much in doubt. These judicial fiascos have inevitably sustained a climate of impunity in which more journalists have been murdered.
Reporters Without Borders and JED have for years been condemning the arbitrary arrests and heavy-handed interrogations practiced by the powerful National Intelligence Agency (ANR) in both Kinshasa and the provinces. The latest case was that of Etienne Maluka, also known as Mike Elima, the chief technician of Radio Communautaire de Moanda (RCM), who was jailed for 32 days in Matadi, the capital of the western province of Bas-Congo.
Arrested by the ANR and held in its own cells in Moanda and Matadi for nine days before being transferred to Matadi’s main prison, Maluka was accused of “attacking internal state security” for broadcasting a song in Portuguese called “Cabinda 25” which, according to Angola’s consul in Moanda, insulted Angolan President José Eduardo Dos Santos. He was finally acquitted on 12 June.
“Mike Elima just acted as the station’s technician,” RCM manager Jean Ndombasi told Reporters Without Borders. “When we play music, we don’t try to understand all the words of the songs. We play so much foreign music on our community radio that we would have to hire lots of interpreters if we had to understand what the words of each song said. We could not afford that.”
Ndombasi added: “I regret that this incident took place at the station. Now that the courts have established that no crime was committed and our technician has been released, we have taken measures. We will no longer play any Portuguese songs even if our listeners request them.”
Journalists have many problems in the provinces, especially in the east of the country. Aside from the risk of violence, they are often threatened local officials. Le Messager du Peuple, a radio station based in Uvira, in Sud-Kivu province, was threatened with closure by district administrator Wabunga Singa on 15 June because opposition supporters participating in its “Barza du Peuple” discussion programme criticised a decision to suspend a local money-changers’ association.
Local journalists suffer most from the lack of press freedom in the DRC but the foreign media are by no means spared. Local retransmission of the French international radio station Radio France Internationale (RFI) has been suspended throughout the country for the past year. The authorities accused RFI of “trying to incite soldiers to disobey their superiors and to revolt, and stirring up problems in the barracks while the country is at war.”
JED waged a campaign from February to April of this year for the resumption RFI’s broadcasts, collecting 10,186 signatures to a petition. The station still has not been allowed to resume broadcasting while JED has been demonised by the communication and media ministry’s own campaign.
The authorities have also made it harder for foreign journalists to obtain press accreditation, now a pre-requisite for any press visa application. The terms of the new press accreditation also refer to the military justice code, effectively making foreign journalists subject to military justice, in complete violation of article 156 of the constitution.