Journalism — a scourge in the lead-up to the elections in Congo-Kinshasa

The pressure on journalists is rising as the elections loom in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After a downward trend, the organisation for freedom of the press Journaliste en danger (JED) has noted a rise in the number of violations of that freedom. At the same time, JED Chairman Donat M’Baya Tshimanga is warning that instead of a control function safeguarding democracy, the media may be a risk factor in the lead-up to the elections in November.

September 23 2011 Rakel Lennartsson

On 19 June, the TV channel La Radio Lisanga Télévision (RLTV) broadcast a programme supported by opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi. The programme was hosted by journalist Baby Balukuna. After the broadcast, she was attacked by a group of unknown assailants armed with machetes and batons. There are no indications that the authorities have any inclination to investigate this crime.

A couple of weeks later, the image from RLTV was suddenly a black screen. The TV channel Baby Balukuna worked for had been shut down by the government, which has been gradually tightening its grip on power since the elections in 2006. At that time, it was the UN that provided both the finance for and conducted the first free elections for 40 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the autumn, the same procedure will be repeated, but this time under the country's own auspices. Preparations began late and to the very last there was speculation as to whether elections would be held at all.

The election in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in the Democratic Republic of Congo on 28 November. Just on 30 million people, from a population of around 66 million, have registered to vote on the electoral roll and are thus entitled to vote. At the beginning of the year, the majority loyal to Kabila pushed through an amendment in the Constitution which means that the presidential election will be conducted as a ballot and that the president can be elected to office by a bare majority vote. In general, this favours the incumbent, because the opposition has found it difficult to agree on a candidate.

“After the elections in 2006, it was as if everyone forgot that in five years it would be time again,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga, Chairman of Journaliste en danger (JED).

We have arranged to meet at JED's office on the second floor of a small shopping and office complex in Gombe in central Kinshasa. Outside, the city is bustling with noise and activity. The street is half dug-up and traffic is temporarily one-way. There is quite feverish activity in the most central parts of the capital city, with new construction and in particular roadworks, the contracts for which have gone solely to Chinese companies. Many people have opinions about this. Donat M’Baya Tshimanga recounts what a Western diplomat said to him: “Where were the Chinese in 2006 when we needed to raise half a billion Euros to legitimise Kabila's power? It's us who've paid for his legitimacy, but now he is giving the market to the Chinese.” The Congolese themselves complain that Kabila is investing in nice roads for the rich foreigners who live in the centre of the city instead of on basic hygiene and security for the ordinary Congolese.

“Before the elections in 2006, I always had water. After the elections, I no longer have water at home. Before the elections, I had electricity all the time, now I only have it for a couple of hours each day. The social situation in the country has got much worse,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga.

Even so, he is one of the relatively prosperous. The extent to which the conditions governing his life are limited is more a consequence of the threats directed at him due to his commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. When we meet, JED has recently written an open letter to the Minister for media and communications. The letter, which was published in the daily newspaper Le Potentiel criticises the government for shutting down RLTV and draws attention to the fact that no effort has been made to investigate the circumstances surrounding the assaults on the female journalist and programme host.

Donat M’Baya Tshimanga
Donat M’Baya Tshimanga

“These assaults, three months prior to the election, are extremely worrying. They demonstrate an ill-concealed ambition to enforce a political monopoly over the mass media by quashing broadcasts deemed to be troublesome or giving a voice to dissident views,” writes JED and demands that the government expedite the appointment of the independent authority for media supervision, Le Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel et de la communication (CSAC).

Just over a month later, at the time of writing, the government has just appointed the members of the board, but it is questionable what use they will have time to be prior to the elections in November.

“The government has delayed this as far as possible so that the members will not have any chance of doing an honest job. The rules of play are most likely already in place,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga.

Regulating the media landscape in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a delicate task. In Kinshasa alone, there are 50 TV channels. An estimated 90% of all media is owned by political interests. The state radio and television channel, Radio Télévision Nationale Congolaise (RTNC), has essentially been taken over by the government. Independent media comprise primarily local radio channels and channels operated by associations and organisations. UN-financed Radio Okapi has been seen as the foremost independent provider of news, but in recent times, Donat M’Baya Tshimanga has seen indications of self-censorship among the channel's journalists.

“For some time now, we have noted that Okapi has been avoiding taking up certain important issues. In their case, this is not for political reasons. Rather, I believe that it is because of fear of reprisals from the government. If the Minister for media and communications is displeased, he phones up the responsible journalists directly and tells them off immediately.

Donat M’Baya Tshimanga does not believe that it is an accident that the Minister chooses to contact the locally employed Congolese journalists, who have poorer protection than their international colleagues.

“As long as they remain inside the walls of Okapi, they are protected by the UN security forces, the police cannot get in there. But once they go home in the evenings, they have no protection any longer. If you want to deal out reprisals, it's easier to go for the Congolese,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga …

Attacks on journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo increased last year from 75 cases in 2009 to 87 cases in 2010. This is a trend break since the end of the previous electoral period. In particular, a marked increase in the number of journalists in prison has been noted: from three people in 2009 to 17 in 2010. The number of arrests during the same period rose from 20 to 27. “JED fears that the political tensions in the lead-up to the elections in the autumn are having a negative impact on the right to inform and to be informed,” writes the organisation in the conclusion of its annual report, which is produced with the support of Sweden's development aid organisation Sida.

The number of murdered journalists has remained at a high and stable level since 2005 and the lead-up to the current mandate period.

“Since the most recent electoral period, at least nine journalists have lost their lives. Not even under Mobutu were there so many, there were maybe two or three throughout the entire 30 years he was in power,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga.

Mobutu was a much-feared dictator. Joseph Kabila was elected by the people in UN-sanctioned elections. But much under Kabila's rule is familiar from the time of the Mobutu regime: the lack of transparency, the lack of a state governed by law, general disinterest in the social sector and widespread corruption. The Swedish Institute of International Affairs reports that Kabila's rule has become increasingly authoritarian over the years and that corruption is still the country's biggest problem.

It is estimated that around 80% of the population live outside the formal economy. The percentage of unemployed is higher than the percentage of employed. Among those who are in work, many earn less per month than what it costs to go to see a doctor, that is, USD 20.

To survive, those in authority, and even those who work in the private sector, take every opportunity to threaten, fine or simply ask for money to get additional funds for their households. Donat M’Baya Tshimanga says it is common for journalists to ask their interviewees for reimbursement for the transport to and from the interview.

State-employed journalists earn around USD 50 a month, or in the best case USD 100 per month, while salaries for those employed in the private sector can be up to USD 150 per month. The majority of all journalists earn their living by working for one of the private channels owned by politicians. They do not necessarily sympathise with the politician in question, but they need food on the table for their children, and in such a situation press ethics are an expensive luxury. Instead of being the guardians of democracy, the media are in danger of becoming a risk factor in the elections.

“As things stand today, the mass media constitute a danger. If the media are independent and professional, their role is to be a relief valve for an exchange of views, so that the election process can proceed smoothly. That's the ideal, but in practice, the Congolese media are in the hands of politicians who use them as instruments for achieving their own political goals,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a land area as big as that of Western Europe, consists of several hundred different peoples, and ethnic tensions are freely exploited in the battle for political power.

“The biggest risk is that the elections will degenerate into violence because people will not accept the election results,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga.

Most expect that Joseph Kabila will win – “because he is the one organising the elections”. International employees who have the opportunity to do so plan to be out of the country during the election period. Donat M’Baya Tshimanga estimates the chances of the elections resulting in violence as “two out of three”. He is also convinced that Kabila is prepared to use violence in order to retain power.

“As long as we don't have freedom of speech, we don't have democracy – we are living in a repressive regime,” says Donat M’Baya Tshimanga, who doesn't hesitate to call the Democratic Republic of Congo a dictatorship.

“In reality we are living in a dictatorship. Now and then as a kind of parenthesis, we hold something like elections, in which the people don't even know who they are voting for or why. What is a vote in a country where people are not educated, where people don't have enough to eat? A vote for them is a person who can give them something to eat or buy them a bar of soap – but that is not a social project!