In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Journalists Struggle with Threats and Self-Censorship

Journaliste en Danger — Journalists in Danger — (JED) is an initiative of Congolese journalists to defend and promote press freedom. Founded in 1998, JED issues alerts when journalists are victims of violence or threatened by militants. JED advocates for a modification of the media legal framework in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is one of the main civil society organizations participating in the current political process.

Karim Benard-Dende, Internews Chief of Party in DRC, interviewed Tshivis Tshivuadi, JED General Secretary and one of the founders of the association, who provides insight into the situation of press freedom in the pre-electoral period in the DRC.

KBD: DRC ranked 172 out of 199 in the 2014 Freedom House Press Freedom Index and 151 out of 180 in 2014 Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index. What are the trends in the situation of press freedom in the last year in the DRC?

Tshivis Tshivuadi, Journaliste en Danger General Secretary. Credit Karim Benard-Dende /Internews

TT: On November 2, we released our annual report on press freedom in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For 15 years, we have released our annual report each December 10, International Human Rights Day, because we consider that our work is based on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This article guarantees to each individual the right to get information and to share this information without being harassed or threatened. This is the legal basis of our work as journalists. By the way, this right is also guaranteed by the current Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since 2013, we decided to change the date. We chose November 2 which is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

We consider that this question is now central. It is a scourge that limits the work of journalists a lot more than the legal framework. For us, to issue our report each November 2 is a way to challenge the government. We ask the government to prosecute identified people involved in violence against journalists or attacking press freedom outside the rule of law.

KBD: According to the Constitution, local, provincial, legislative and presidential elections were supposed to be completed in a 2015–2017 period of time. Political actors did not agree on the electoral calendar and neither on the electoral law. The process appears to be blocked and the government is currently organizing a National Dialogue to find consent on these issues. Most of the opponents will not participate this discussion. In the DRC, the electoral processes has always been an endangered period for journalists. You received death threats in 2011 during the last electoral period. To what extent is the electoral period critical for journalists and press freedom in the DRC? What is the current situation?

TT: In the last year, 72 attacks against the right to provide information to the public have been documented: censorship, threats and arrests. For these 72 cases, we issued alerts, press releases and protestation letters that were sent to local authorities and public servants responsible for these attacks against press freedom.

Security forces — the police and the army –and local authorities are responsible for more than half of these attacks, even in Kinshasa. Outside the rule of law, they use their power or their relations to attack media outlets when published or broadcast piece of information makes them uncomfortable.

Cover of report
Report: 2016: Information under Close Surveillance

It is getting worse in the electoral period. Elections are currently being postponed but still, we are already in the electoral period. This is why we have called our 2015 report: 2016: Information under Close Surveillance (French version).

The political situation is extremely tense. The direct consequence is an increase in the number of violent incidents against journalists when they are out reporting on an event. This violence is worrying most of the journalists and is the main cause for self-censorship in the Congolese media sector.

For example, in January 2015, the opposition called for manifestation against the modification of the electoral law. People were killed and injured during these demonstrations. The government used strong measures against the media in shutting down access to SMS, access to Internet and access to social media [notably through mobile internet] for several weeks. Several media outlets close to the political opposition have been suspended or closed.

The government showed its strong willingness to control the information and, for the first time, it included social media. We indeed reached another level in this obsession of control. Shutting down the networks also had consequences on businesses, companies and banks. Despite national and international disapproval, the minister of Communication [he is also the spokesperson for the government] declared “if it would happen again, I will act the same way” for national security reasons.

KBD: How does repression affect concretely the work of journalists who try to inform the public about what is played behind the scenes of the current electoral process?

TT: Self-censorship is the main negative effect. We documented 72 attacks against press freedom in 2015, they were 96 in 2014. It gives the impression of an improvement although the political environment is more volatile and more and more politicians are making declaration against freedom of expression.

A man and a woman sit outside a building while the woman holds audio equipment
Internews trains women to be journalists to increase their participation in media and information. One of the issues covered is the participation of women in elections. Credit Internews

Journalists tend not to report on subjects that are considered sensitive to the government or local authorities, notably the electoral process (the modification of the electoral regulation and the possible fraud) and corruption. They consider that treating those subjects will only bring them problems. Therefore, journalists only focus on the messages delivered by politicians.

To avoid repression, journalists do not treat or treat superficially essential subjects for informing choices of citizens. Currently, the condition of the organization of the electoral process or the impact of potential modification of the electoral framework. Most of media outlets prefer acting like a soundboard of political parties.

In the DRC, 80% of media outlets are owned or controlled by politicians. For them, the temptation is very strong to control the information published or broadcast by these media outlets as most of them are engaged in the political competition.

The quality of news and information content produced by journalists is also an indicator of the quality of the democracy in our country. Journalists are currently limiting their work to — what I would name — the minimum level of service: to produce news content without getting into trouble.

KBD: Are public-owned media able to address the issue of the ownership of media outlets by politicians?

TT: The public broadcaster is very important in our country. It is the only Congolese media outlets that people can listen to throughout the country. But it only broadcasts news and information about people in charge in the government or public institutions: the president, the president’s wife, ministers, political parties supporting the government… Their main issue is to follow the protocol order.

The opposition has no access to public media: 90% of news and information are reports and interviews of members of the government and the parliamentary majority.

KBD: Social media play a growing role in political information and mobilization in the biggest cities in the country. Does DRC have legislation on online media and social media?

TT: Traditional media also suffers from a lack of confidence from the public because of the reasons I described previously. Even in the DRC, the mainstream media are no longer have a monopoly on news and information in the main cities. Social media have now a strong influence on public opinion. This is why the government shut down the access to social media last January.

This is no legal framework concerning social media in the DRC. However, we can see in the national intelligence service a willingness to find responses and to control content shared on social media.

I know that there are lots of manipulations and disinformation campaigns on social media but the way to address this is not to shut down the access. Social media are now one of the main space for the democratic debate. When rumors and fake news are spreading on social networks, the best way to address the issue is to publish and share the right information.

JED is a key implementing partner of the Internews Media Development Support Program (MSDP) funded by USAID. Since 2012, Internews has supported 80% of core operating costs, which allows for monitoring attacks against press freedom and providing legal assistance. MSDP also supports JED’s advocacy work on the media legal framework, including a draft law improving rights to access to information that is currently under consideration by the Parliament.

Banner photo: Reporters in the DRC face threats and violence during the pre-election period. Credit: Internews

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)