Africa's second-largest country is in a state of crisis, brought on by decades of conflict, plundering and Ebola outbreaks. With elections expected in December, can the DRC's media hold up under mounting pressure on what they say and about whom?
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been known by many names since the Belgian colonisation. Likewise, the DRC has known many rulers and leaders since. But it was the US-backed kleptocratic regime of Joseph-Desire Mobutu, or Mobutu Sese Seko Koko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga after he changed his name under his “return to authenticity” policy, which set the tone for the DRC in the African-independence era.
Two decades after his plundering regime fell, the former dictator and journalist's toxic legacy of throttling free expression flourishes.
“Freedom of information is constantly under attack and journalists are exposed to threats, physical violence, arrest, detention and even murder,” Committee to Protect Journalist’s Africa programme coordinator Angela Quintal told TRT World.
He was a cult figure, a strongman whose rule was marked with state television news broadcasts opening with what the New York Times described as “images of Mobutu descending from the heavens.”
Prior to Mobutu’s slight loosening of the single-party state in 1990, in Kinasha and other regions, the state owned most of the media, which had one sole agenda — spreading government propaganda. Private news organisations were crippled by Mobutu’s government, which cut off funding lifelines.
News organisations made some small gains in the six-year-period before Mobutu’s fall as criticism of the leader and his followers became more acceptable to the state.
The following period between 1997 and 2011 saw an expansion of the media landscape — especially radio stations broadcasting in African languages, which are the primary source of information for the Congolese. This sets radio apart from print, which primarily operates in the official language, French.
With general elections set for December 23 amid continuing conflict and fears that President Joseph Kabila will flout rules to run for a third term, the public’s access to information is more important than ever.
Congo’s crisis loop
Decades of plundering by leaders, warlords and external forces and constant war displaced more than 4.5 million people – some to camps that don’t even have water. Crisis after crisis has led to devastating food insecurity, hindered infrastructure development and increased the overall vulnerability of the Congolese.
The armed forces and militias killed thousands of civilians since 2016, according to ReliefWeb.
Millions of women and girls have been raped and sexual violence — generalised and as a tool of war — continues unabated.
And soon after announcing the end to a crippling Ebola outbreak, which has killed at least 30 people and infected another 13, the country is potentially facing its second one.
The government claims there is no humanitarian crisis — and the absence of independent investigative local reporting makes it easier for the DRC to hide inefficiencies and atrocities from the world.
Congolese authorities downplay violence in the country by referring to it as an internal matter, as interethnic tensions; tensions that straddle the faultlines of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Thousands have been displaced by violence in eastern DRC since January, where dozens of armed groups are active.
The diamond-rich region of central Kasai has seen rape and the killing of thousands since 2016. The conflict involving the Kamuina Nsapu and Bana Mura militias, and Congo’s armed forces has triggered UN warnings of another genocide.
Kabila’s refusal to step down amid multiple continuing conflicts and after his mandate ran out in 2016 has also raised fears that elections might not take place in December, which can trigger more bloodshed. Armed groups say the government has already reached out to them, asking them to prepare for the war which will follow in the absence of polls; a claim the army has denied.
Even though the unrest in the DRC is real, it hardly ever gets enough international media coverage.
A Guardian Comment is Free article details how the world turns a blind eye on the situation in Congo, as “no journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories.”
Media under Joseph Kabila’s rule
Not unlike the tenure of his father Laurent, Kabila silences the media when it turns the lens on him. Nine years into his rule, Foreign Policy ran a piece, “Congo’s new Mobutu,” which drew parallels between the two regimes, outlining brutality, oppression and silencing of all opposition, even at the cost of death.
The country is not safe for journalists. According to CPJ, at least five journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2018, and at least 27 journalists were briefly detained, threatened, or assaulted as they tried to cover violence and protests in the region.
The non-profit organisation said security forces would delete or confiscate journalists’ recordings, while the government often orders internet shutdowns, which makes it easy to surveil journalists’ phone calls.
Quintal added the CPJ’s research indicates a consistent pattern of abuse by authorities against the press.
“Over the last year, we havedocumented a concerning trend of harassment against journalists who cover pro-democracy protests. CPJ has also documented government orders to cut internet and SMS services, as well as cuts to radio and television stations.”
“In general, Congolese journalists have been collateral victims of decades of conflict and political crisis, and designated targets of security forces. There is a pervasive sense that security forces feel they can legitimately intimidate and detain journalists,” she told TRT World.
Just recently, the Congolese authorities arrested 10 journalists from privately-owned TV production studio Kin Lartus in Kinshasa and seized some of the network’s equipment.
In June, the government issued a decree piggy-backing on a 1996 law to clamp down on online media. The decree requires registering with the government, complying with the old law and getting ads pre-approved. And after July, those who do not comply will be fined or imprisoned based on the decades-old law.
While the communication ministry argues the decision was taken “to protect the public” from fake news and hate speech, watchdogs say it acts against freedom of the press. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both warned provisions in the law have been used in the past to censor criticism of politicians and can hamper a more vibrant independent media, which exists online.
The government also slows or shuts down the internet with the help of a 2002 law. On many an occasion, especially during protests or unrest, internet and social media blackouts have prevented civilians and journalists on the ground from sharing pictures or other content.
Internet service providers comply with the government’s line to avoid losing their licences.
Over the years, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC set up Radio Okapi. Their signal has often been interrupted along with other radio networks’. It is available in French only.
Authorities also took Radio France Internationale (RFI) off air because of its coverage. RFI resumed services in August 2017 after a 10-month shutdown over what the government said was the station’s sympathy for opposition rallies against Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his tenure.
“As authorities stalled plans to organise elections, government officials and security forces systematically sought to silence, repress, and intimidate the political opposition, human rights and pro-democracy activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters,” the Human Rights Watch said in areport.
Given all the restrictions and threats in place, the standards of local journalism are not very high.
Journalists often function without proper contracts, regular salaries, training and proper equipment, according to an InterNews report from 2012. The oppressive environment results in the heavy editorialising of news and fact-checking remains negligible.
If elections do take place in December, they will be the first peaceful transition of power since the DRC gained independence in 1960.
One contender is former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba who returned to the DRC after over a decade. He was on trial at the International Criminal Court over war crimes — over murder, rape and pillaging committed by his Movement for the Liberation of Congo forces in neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. Bemba was sentenced in 2016 to 18 years in prison, but his conviction was overturned. He still awaits a final sentencing at the ICC in another case in which he was convicted of interfering with witnesses.
Multimillionaire and former governor Moise Katumbi also announced his intentions to run but was prevented from entering the DRC on August 3, as he returned from self-exile to submit his nomination papers.
"The regime has forbidden me from landing and barricaded the border," Katumbi tweeted. "My crime? Wanting to enter my country and file my candidacy. In trying to block me, they want to deny the rights of the Congolese to a real election. I will fight!"
The five main opposition parties have issued a statement to call for "free, democratic and transparent" elections without electronic voting machines. But they insisted that Kabila should not take part.
Kabila has vowed to respect the constitution but so far not spelt out if he will contest the election, nor has he yet designated a successor.
August 8 is the deadline for candidates to submit applications.
Even as the government bores down on freedoms in the run-up to elections, “the press is able to criticise the government and some publications carry opposition party views,” Quintal said about the persistence of the industry.