A media rights NGO on Tuesday called on the newly-inaugurated transitional government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to use the current momentum for change in the country to ensure that it gives top priority to freedom of expression.
The appeal by Kinshasa-based Journaliste en danger (JED), which coincided with the annual national day of the press, included a general assessment of the difficult state of media freedom in the country in recent years and made recommendations for the government and international partners to ensure its improvement.
It reported that at least 260 journalists had been arrested nationwide since the late President Mobutu Sese Seko was toppled by a rebel alliance headed by Laurent-Desire Kabila on 17 May 1997. So far this year, it said, 21 journalists have been arrested or imprisoned.
Terming the past five years of war in the DRC “a period of sheer hell for the Congolese press and journalists”, JED highlighted examples of the most severe instances of suppression of freedom of expression committed nationwide by government and rebel forces.
Among the most serious cases are those of Bunia-based interpreter for the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, Akite Kisembo. He was abducted in early July and his whereabouts remain unknown. Another case concerns Belmonde Magloire Missinhoun, the director of the newspaper Le Point-Congo. His disappearance from Kinshasa on 13 September 1998 has never been investigated.
Another example is the case of Dieudonne Muzaliwa Bulambo, a journalist of Radiotelevision nationale congolaise. On 2 May, he was arrested and beaten in Kindu, eastern DRC, by the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Goma (then a rebel movement) for having suggested that Rwandan troops were operating in the DRC. A correspondent in Lubumbashi for “La Tribune” newspaper, Donatien Nyembo Kimuni, was sentenced on 11 July to five years’ imprisonment for a story critical of the management and working conditions of the Gecamines mining company.
JED also criticised what it believed to be excessive taxation and licensing fees for media organisations, thereby discouraging independent outlets from flourishing and keeping a wide array of information out of the reach of most Congolese.
However, it highlighted several recent developments it deemed positive, such as the inclusion of articles 27, 28 and 29 in the new constitution, which are aimed at guaranteeing freedom of expression; the creation of a national law reform commission charged with, among many other tasks, revising legislation pertaining to freedom of the media; and the inauguration of the Haute Autorite des Medias, an independent body charged with improving the standards of journalism nationwide.
JED also called on international partners of the DRC to consider the media as being as important as other sectors such as health, education, and infrastructure. It urged donors to provide post-conflict support to the Congolese media.