- Freedom of the press has suffered major setbacks in the Congo Kinshasa (DRC) this year after Rwandan-backed rebels led an insurrection in the eastern city of Bukavu, according new reports. The government issued directives restricting the press and imprisoned four journalists during the last months.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today released a report on what it the "shattering of press freedom" in Congo since unrest in early June deteriorated the national security situation. The already "fragile state of press freedom" in Congo had suffered a setback due to "state-imposed restrictions and imprisonment, as well as rebel-backed threats and attacks," which had limited independent reporting.
In a two-month period surrounding the unrest, the Kinshasa government had issued at least three directives restricting coverage, authorities had imprisoned at least four journalists and attackers allegedly led by an army officer severely beat another journalist, an investigation by the CPJ found.
During that same time, the media watchdog group found, rebels forced Bukavu's three main community radio stations to close and threatened at least four journalists, forcing them to flee. Rebels were also blamed for killing the brother of radio station director Joseph Nkinzo, whom they mistakenly believed was the journalist.
Shortly before the unrest, optimism had returned to the media in Congo Kinshasa, where journalists had been frequent targets for violence, harassment, and imprisonment during two civil wars in 1996-97 and 1998-2003. Media groups noted that no Congolese journalist was in prison and that reporters were working more freely and safely. Press conditions had gradually improved since the Kinshasa government of President Joseph Kabila and the main rebel groups signed a peace agreement in December 2002.
This optimism soon evaporated as two groups of Rwandan-backed rebels in the east joined forces to take control of Bukavu on 2 June and hold the city for a week. The rebellion prompted violent demonstrations in Kinshasa and elsewhere against the UN, which had been unable to prevent Bukavu's fall, and political parties participating in the transition. On 11 June, the government had to turn back an attempted coup. Lack of official information about the coup helped fuel more rumours and speculation.
- With fighting around Bukavu in the east and political tensions running high elsewhere, the government sought to restrict the press and warned of sanctions against those who did not follow the government line, the CPJ report says. A 27 May communiqué signed by Kinshasa's Information Minister Vital Kamerhe, said that all TV and radio stations were "strictly forbidden to broadcast messages likely to aggravate the situation."
On 5 June, Minister Kamerhe summoned Kinshasa editors and issued further warnings. According to CPJ sources, Mr Kamerhe told them the country was on a war footing, that there should be no speech or images to discourage the population or the army, and that editorial lines should be patriotic. This was followed by a 12 June circular in which he cautioned the media against "words that might demoralise the Congolese Armed Forces" or "treating lightly the unfortunate events that threaten the peace process." He again warned of sanctions.
Saying the minister's note contained "barely veiled threats," the local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED) denounced "repeated attempts to muzzle the press or dictate the editorial line of press outlets." JED said that since no state of emergency had been declared, the minister had no right to issue such circulars.
Minister Kamerhe however told CPJ that the directives were necessary because of the crisis and his belief that the press was capable of "inventing anything" to sell newspapers. "We are a young democracy to trust journalists 100 percent to censor themselves," Mr Kamerhe was quoted as saying. He nevertheless expressed willingness to reform the country's 1996 press law with an aim of decriminalising press offences.
Despite the ongoing imprisonment of Congolese journalists, Mr Kamerhe told CPJ that the Kinshasa government's policy was "zero journalists in prison." Since that, however, Mr Kamerhe has become Secretary-General of the presidential party PPRD and was replaced at the Information Ministry by Henri Mova Sakanyi. "Journalists and independent groups are still assessing the new Minister's positions," CPJ says.
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