Press Bosses: How Congolese Politicians Benefit from the Country’s Media Crackdown

On July 8, 2018, the National Union of the Congolese Press (UNPC) announced they had been contacted by two local reporters who claimed to have been unlawfully held by security forces.

In their statement to the press, the UNPC explained that Ronelly Ntibonera and Ghislain Watongoka were kidnapped by a senior commander of the Congolese army after attempting to report on a land dispute in the South Kivu region between the family of former president Mobutu Sese Seko.

Gaëlle Mpoyo, vice president of the UNPC regional branch, was clear in his condemnation of these acts and demanded that the governor take action by ensuring the commander be tried in court.

However, instead of meeting the demands put forward by the UNPC, governor Jean Claude Nyamugabo attempted to stop Mpoyo’s most recent documentary from being aired.

According to Africanews, Mpoyo and Franck Zongwe, who both work as reporters for Vision Shala Television, created a 20-minute documentary entitled “Mbobero: la raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure (Mbobero: the reason of the strongest is always the best),” which details the illegal land seizures conducted by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s armed forces under president Kabila.

On the day Mpoyo and Zongwe’s documentary was being screened at a local theater in South Kivu’s capital, governor Nyamugabo called the journalists and ordered it not be distributed further to avoid upsetting President Kabila.

According to a recent report issued by Human Rights Watch, the journalists and two other human rights activists interviewed in the documentary decided to leave the region after receiving phone calls and seeing government officials pass by their houses multiple times.

In a statement to the Congo-based free press advocacy group Journaliste en Danger (JED), Mpoyo claimed that on July 11, 2018, he received a text message from an unidentified number, warning him of the retaliation he would face if he failed to remove his documentary from YouTube.

“Kid, stop playing with fire. You have taken advantage of our silence by posting the video to YouTube. Stop fighting with Raïs (President Kabila). We will give you 24 hours to take off this video from YouTube if you want to live. We know where you are hiding and are following closely your every move.”

According to the Secretary-General of JED, Tshivis Tshivuad, the number of journalists who are willing to defy the standard editorial line has been rapidly declining in the past three years.

The organization has reported that since 2015, 280 Congolese journalists have had their rights violated by being either physically or mentally harmed, detained unjustly or subject to economic and governmental pressure.

A number of Congolese journalists interviewed by Al Jazeera consider the last point to be particularly important, as they say that the media landscape remains highly controlled due to the persistent coercion reporters face from politicians who, as indicated by JED, are also usually their bosses.

A history of news as a tool for political propaganda

In order to understand the makeup of the DRC’s media landscape, as well as how, despite over 400 news organizations operating in the country, 80 percent are owned by politicians, one must take into account the country’s modern history.

After the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba, the DRC’s first democratically-elected president, the army officer Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965 and ruled over the one-party state for 32 years.

According to Marie-Soleil Frère, media professor at the Free University of Brussels, the press was highly controlled during the first two decades of the military dictatorship, as only five state channels were allowed to broadcast in select metropolitan cities. However, soon after Mobutu launched the national sovereign conference in 1990 so as to plan the country’s development, a new system of political pluralism was allowed to flourish.

As a result of such liberalization, emerging politicians decided to use the media as a means to consolidate their presence in the minds of the public. This resulted in the DRC’s media space rapidly transitioning from a state monopoly to a rich sphere of information with over 638 privately-owned publications created within a five-year period.

However, due to such a high ownership rate of news organizations by politicians, the media became extremely politicized, with outlets being placed in one of two distinct groups: “the movement” press, which supported Mobutu, and “the radical opposition,” critical of the military dictator’s policies.

The degree of polarization in the DRC’s press only increased after Mobutu was overthrown by Laurent Désiré Kabila, the father of the country’s current president.

The simultaneous crackdown on political activity by the new head of state and the eruption of the 1998 civil war significantly affected news outlets’ sources of funding, as well as their ability to distribute information to the public.

As Professor Frère states, the extreme state of deprivation journalists faced during this period made them increasingly willing to sacrifice their integrity for the sake of survival.

As a result of this prolonged susceptibility to corruption and partisanship, news in the DRC started to become indistinguishable from political propaganda. In some instances during the 1998 war, news outlets even went as far as calling for the murder of Tutsi militiamen who contested Kabila’s power.

In the present day, turmoil continues to preside over the country. According to a 2017 report published by the International Federation for Human Rights, the head of state, Joseph Kabila, had begun to pursue a strategy of “organized chaos” by the end of his term in order to delay national elections.

This approach entailed using local militias associated with a specific ethnic group to terrorize other communities and instigate sectarian conflict. Kabila’s administration could then blame the opposition for such instability and justify its power to the public.

Therefore, as Eliezer Tambwe, editor at the online news outlet Tokomo Wapi, tells Al Jazeera, the DRC’s continued political and economic crisis does not allow media organizations to obtain the finances needed to remain independent.

Tambwe continues to explain that what results from this situation is politicians taking advantage of outlets’ financial struggles by either bribing journalists or even buying the organizations.

The Kinshasa-based editor now considers choosing your political stance to have become a routine decision for Congolese journalists.

Radio Okapi: silencing the voices of truth

As made evident by the two press freedom violations mentioned at the start of this article, Kabila and his administration have decided to resort to the use of unlawful tactics in order to further reduce the 20 percent of news outlets that remain uninfluenced by the will of politicians.

The independently-run Radio Okapi is just one of president Kabila’s victims in the country’s systematic crackdown on the media.

In the words of Manoujde Mounoubay, former spokesperson for the UN in the DRC, Radio Okapi is an essential component of The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).

Therefore, the outlet’s primary goal is to use its non-partisanship and professionalism in order to disseminate unbiased information and reunify the country after years of internal conflict. However in 2016, Radio Okapi’s lack of ties to domestic political interests and the rigorous journalism that resulted from it preoccupied state authorities.

According to Le Monde, Kabila’s government proceeded to cut the radio’s transmission, accusing them of supporting the opposition. Even once the signal was restored, the outlet continued to face threats of shutdown from the government if they were to discuss red-line issues.

What is most worrying about the consistent attacks directed toward journalists is the culture of self-censorship that develops within news outlets as a result.

In an interview with Internews, Tshivuad claims that independent organizations such as Radio Okapi have been forced to adhere to the government’s demands and now tend to avoid controversial topics, such as the electoral process.

Therefore, most of their coverage tends to be directed toward political meetings and the messages delivered by the central government instead of the effects of their actions on the public.

What the Congolese people think about the press

In a series of interviews conducted by Congo Mikili News, the general sentiment expressed by citizens toward the DRC’s media was one of distrust, with one man saying “the press’s truth is the one told to them by the government.”

Another interviewee claimed to have resorted to watching foreign news channels instead of national ones in order to avoid partisan information.

The conversation on Twitter regarding freedom of expression in the DRC seems to be just as dismal. For example, the most common word used to describe the state of the press is “asphyxiation,” as many believe that the survival of news outlets depends on their political stances.

One individual seemed to appropriately summarize Twitter users’ stances on the matter, as he claims that while freedom of the press is present in the DRC, it does not constitute a right.

Therefore, there are two aspects that the majority of Congolese seem to agree on. The first is the repression and lack of freedom journalists face when attempting to do their job, while the second seems to be that, if any of Kabila allies succeed in the next election, the media crackdown will most likely continue.

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