The vast territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo boasts hundreds of newspapers and scores of privately-owned radio and television stations. Political tensions run high and the media, often dependent on parties competing for power and unscrupulous businessmen, are frequently targets of sometimes deadly score-settling.
The Congolese media is highly politicised and consequently suffers as a result of highly-charged political tensions across the country. Following the 2006 presidential election, media owned by Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president and unsuccessful election rival to Joseph Kabila, were particularly targeted. The broadcast signal of TV and radio stations owned by Bemba was interrupted on 21 March 2007, after he said in an interview in the Lingala language, that the army command was embezzling 500 million Congolese francs a month from the army payroll. Over the next two days bloody clashes erupted in the streets of Kinshasa pitting the DR Congo Armed Forces (FARDC) against the personal guard of Senator Bemba, who had refused to allow his men to be integrated into the regular army, for lack of sufficient guarantees of their safety. During the clashes, uniformed men raided the studios of Canal Kin Télévision (CKTV), Canal Congo Television (CCTV), and Radio Liberté Kinshasa (Ralik). Repeated death threats forced numbers of staff on Jean-Pierre Bemba-owned media into hiding.
In another sign of the close surveillance imposed on the Congolese private media, a botched decision by the information minister silenced four community radios in Kinshasa and put at risk the continued existence of 200 more throughout the country. The ministry took the view that the targeted media did not have licences for regular broadcasts, receipts or proof of payment of taxes owed to the government. Some of them subsequently produced documents proving they were complying with the law, including a payment schedule agreed with the General Directorate for Administrative and State Revenue Collection (DGRD). Broadcasts resumed on 24 October. Community radios operating in a legal vacuum, without any state aid, played a crucial role in providing the public with news about the transition process and the various election dates in the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years. A solution was finally found at the end of the year.
Journalists are imprisoned frequently both in Kinshasa and in the provinces. Press freedom organisations often face Kafkaesque situations because of absurd laws, a high level of corruption in all sectors of the administration and the authorities’ aggressive policies. In one such case, Bosange Mbaka, knowns as “Che Guevara”, editor of the periodical Mambenga, spent ten months in custody because of a ridiculous event. He was covering a public hearing at Kinshasa’s Supreme Court on 21 November 2006, when clashes broke out between soldiers and militants of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s party during which demonstrators torched the building. During the clashes, the journalist recovered a soldier’s mobile phone which he was about to hand in to the guardroom. He was arrested minutes later and charged with “theft of military property”. He was only acquitted on 7 September 2007. A total of ten Congolese journalists saw the inside of prison during the year and 54 were stopped and questioned by security forces, according to Reporters Without Borders’ partner organisation, Journalist in Danger (JED).
Beyond the usual minor scandals, the Congolese press was badly shaken by a vile murder followed by an outrageous legal error. Journalist and editor on local Radio Okapi, Serge Maheshe, 31, was shot dead by two men in plainclothes as he left a friend’s home in a residential neighbourhood of Bukavu, capital of South Kivu in eastern Congo in the evening of 13 June. The gunmen waylaid Maheshe and two friends as they were about to get into a “UN” marked vehicle used by the radio journalists and ordered them to lie on the ground. One of them fired two bullets into the journalists’ legs and three into his chest. Maheshe had worked for Radio Okapi since 2002 and was a leading media figure in the region.
To general incredulity, the trial of two soldiers arrested some 50 metres from the murder scene in possession of weapons that had just been fired, opened before the Bukavu military court on the evening of the following day. Around 20 people had been arrested in a round-up within hours of the murder. The travesty of a trial ended on 28 August with a new and astonishing turnaround in which four men were sentenced to death : Freddy Bisimwa and Masasile Rwezangabo, two small-time crooks ; and two of the journalist’s close friends, Serge Mohima and Alain Shamavu. The verdict was based solely on the contradictory accusations of the two criminals without any proof and complete absence of motive. No other leads were followed. The court itself recognised that there were gaps in the case in which the prosecution scenario did not stand up to examination. The verdict was based on the “confessions” of the two main suspects, which had accused the journalists’ friends of instigating the murder but without producing any motive or evidence. In a further development a few weeks later, the two men wrote a letter from prison clearing the two friends and accusing military judges of having bribed them and provided them with compromising material to support their story. Serge Mohima and Alain Shamavu remain in prison and under death sentence while awaiting their appeal.
A few weeks after the murder of Serge Maheshe, Patrick Kikuku Wilungula, a freelance photographer working for the Agence congolaise de presse (ACP) and privately-owned weekly Kinshasa-based weekly L’Hebdo de l’est, died from a single shot to the head fired by a gunman in Goma, North Kivu, eastern Congo. The motive and identify of killer were unknown
Under permanent threat
Reporters Without Borders has voiced its exasperation and anxiety about constant threats against the JED, whose leadership is forced to live with unrelenting risk. Even though they have received frequent anonymous death threats and insults for the past two years, the JED leaders received at least two serious warnings in 2007, prompting them to temporarily leave the country.