Journalist in Danger (JED) was founded in 1997 by journalists Donat M’Baya Tshimanga and Tshivis Tshivuadi, based in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. It is one of the most active and respected press freedom organisations in Africa.
These two friends, backed by a handful of support staff, including jurists and secretaries, created JED at a time when Tshivis Tshivuadi was being hunted by police after writing an article about Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s army. Now a member of Reporters Without Borders’ network of partner organisations, JED has real authority in the Congolese media world and works to defend the right to news and information.
The organisation has shown itself particularly combative in reminding journalists who have been too easily corrupted of their duty. It is also in the vanguard of the struggle to get the government to reform its unfair and illiberal legislation under which journalists are regularly sent to the capital’s Penitentiary and Re-education Centre.
The organisation sends and pays for lawyers for prisoners, provides funds to support those who are injured or in hiding, holds meetings to establish common positions in the press, trains journalists in the provinces, alerts international organisations on press freedom violations in the furthest-flung corners of this country which is the size of western Europe and constantly wracked by war...
Press freedom in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The vast size of the former Zaire reflects the scale of the problems facing journalists in this country. In Kinshasa, where the press is abundant, polemical and unruly, death threats, unfair arrests and police brutality are commonplace. In 2006, publishers and editors of papers appearing in the capital were, as in previous years, sent to languish in cells in the sinister Penitentiary and Re-education Centre, often on the basis of a simple complaint from a powerful individual or a telephone call from the police chief.
Indeed, there is a serious problem of corruption within the Congolese press, as in most sectors of society. Many bogus journalists sell columns in local newspapers to the highest bidder, turning themselves into master blackmailers or spokespersons for unscrupulous politicians. Hate speech also regularly finds its way into newspaper columns or on the airwaves of some Congolese media, made use of by political or ethnic clans. The recent presidential electoral campaign was the occasion for public and privately-owned media to noisily declare their allegiance for one candidate or another, frequently with no regard for ethics. As a result, partisan media, particularly those of Joseph Kabila and his rival Jean-Pierre Bemba, were the target of attacks from their opponents, who had no hesitation in sending their militia or militants to silence the voice of “the other”.
But many other journalists do their best to carry out their jobs which are so vital in a developing democracy, but pay a high price, with their safety, their freedom or their lives, for getting in the way of these powerful figures. At least 13 Congolese journalists were locked up in Kinshasa in 2006. One of them, Kazadi Mukendi, a journalist on the weekly Lubilanji Expansion, spent a month and a half in prison for having exposed a case of corruption, and despite the fact that the prosecutor had ordered his release a month and a half earlier. Renowned editorialist Bapuwa Mwamba, newly returned from exile, was murdered at his home on 8 July, probably by soldiers after some easy money. Finally, a foreign reporter for RFI, Ghislaine Dupont, was expelled from the country on 3 July, because her reports did not go down well with the entourage of President Joseph Kabila.
The situation is hardly better in the provinces than in the capital. Journalists live in complete insecurity in areas in which private armies roam the countryside with obscure political objectives. An AFP contributor, Acquitté Kisembo, was reported missing in 2003 in Ituri and there is every reason to fear that he was murdered by local militiamen. Fear utterly holds sway in Bukavu and on the border with Rwanda. Violence and banditry and even murders committed by men in uniform are increasing in the east of the country. Journalists tend to be seen as a source of easy revenue, because they are likely to be carrying cash, tape-recorders, digital cameras and mobile phones.
The other 2006 nominees in the “defender of press freedom” category were:
Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET), Mexico
The Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET) was founded in Mexico in 2003, inspired by journalist Leonarda Reyes. It was not at the outset a freedom of expression organisation, but it quickly made this its priority as Mexico became, from 2004 onwards, one of the American continent’s most dangerous countries for journalists.
Eight journalists have lost their lives in Mexico while doing their job since the start of 2006, most of them for daring to cover the highly risky subject of drug-trafficking. None of these murders has to date been fully solved.
Tadjigoul Begmedova, Turkmenistan
Tadjigoul Begmedova is the president for Turkmenistan of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. She set up the organisation in Bulgaria where she has lived in exile since March 2002. That year the human rights activist and many other opponents were forced into exile under growing harassment from the regime. Tadjigoul Begmedova has continued from Bulgaria to condemn human rights abuses committed by one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Anwar al-Bunni, Syria
Lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni is a founding member of Syria’s Organisation of Human Rights and president of the Free Political Prisoners Committee. In recent years he has taken many risks to uncover and condemn abuses by the Baathist regime. A leading contact for international organisations and chief legal representative for Syrian activists persecuted by the intelligence services (mukhabarat), he has always been a dependable and independent source of information allowing a better understanding of the situation within the country. After he signed the Beirut-Damascus declaration, calling for better relations with Lebanon, Syrian security services arrested him as he left his home on 17 May 2006. He faces 15 years in prison. Almost six months after his arrest, al-Bunni is weakened by very harsh prison conditions and hunger strikes staged to press for his release.