ByIssa Sikiti da Silva*
Journalists fear the strong arm of the Congolese authorities
Journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo can face strict reprisals from the national intelligence agency for carrying out their work.
Outspoken journalists in the conflict-hit Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) fear the powerful Agence Nationale des Renseignements (ANR), the national intelligence agency that constantly breathes down their necks, and hauls them on the coals whenever they “go astray.”
“Going astray” here means criticising government policies, and publishing or broadcasting “provocative content” about the head of state, any member of the government, the military and all members of the corrupt elite allied to the government.
Lengthy jail periods without trial and family visit, torture and acts of intimidation, such as death threats, are all part of ANR’s strategies to put pressure on journalists in a country where judges and magistrates are paid an extra-salary by the state to close their independent eyes.
The DRC was ranked 142rd and 160th by the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom 2013 Index and Transparency International Corruption 2012 Index, respectively.
Consistent violations of human rights
Since the 2006 elections, eight journalists have been killed in the line of duty in the DRC, namely Franck Ngyke (slain alongside his wife Helen Mpaka), Bapuwa Muamba, Serge Maheshe, Mutombo Kahilo, Patrick Kikuku, Didace Namujimbo, Bruno Koko Cirambiza, and Pascal Kabungulu.
Several Western governments, media rights campaigners and human rights organisations continue to criticise ANR for constantly violating human rights and harassing and detaining journalists without trial. But, the practice continues unabated.
In its latest World Report, New York-based Human Rights Watch painted a bleak picture of DRC’s human rights record, accusing state security forces and Congolese and foreign armed groups of committing widespread violations, including murder, torture, illegal detention and acts of intimidation against opposition party members and supporters, human rights activists and journalists.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) deplored the unnecessary detention and torture in mid-December of cameraman Djibril Wadiengoso by ANR agents. Wadiengoso works for the government-controlled RTNC, Radio Télévision Nationale Congolaise.
Pierre Sosthène Kambindi, a broadcasting journalist for Kananga-based Christian Radio Televisionwas released after 106 days in ANR custody in the capital Kinshasa. He recounted to the Journalists in Danger Media Network (JED) the appalling conditions of his detention and unethical interrogation techniques employed by ANR agents.
JED said Kambindi was interrogated about his contacts in the main opposition political party, the Democracy and Social Progress Union (UDPS), and the reasons that led him to disseminate information on the defection of Colonel John Tshibangu, a high-ranking officer of FARDC (DRC army).
Kambindi was arrested in Kananga (Western Kasai Province) in late August last year, and transferred to the capital Kinshasa after broadcasting a news item in mid-August that claimed that Tshibangu had defected from the army and was about to launch a protest movement to seek truth and justice behind the 2011 ‘rigged’ elections.
Prior to his arrest, he was threatened by anonymous callers, with some promising to slit his throat for ‘high treason’ and spreading lies about high-ranking army officers.
Two other journalists Dadou Etiom, (Nzondo TV) and Guy Ngiaba (Bandundu Tele 50), were held for nine days without charge in a prisonin the southwestern Bandundu Province, for ‘offending’ the provincial assembly leader. They were also released in early December after each paying a fine of $1,080, according to Journalists in Danger.
Tense and repression-infested environment
In DRC, reporting ‘comprehensively’ on the activities of opposition political parties, especially the popular UDPS, can land a media house or a journalist in jail, as photographer-cameraman Leki Dala found out. Dala was arrested in October by ANR agents and Joseph Kabila’s Republican Guard who accused him of being a ‘propagandist’ for the UDPS leader Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba.
DRC journalists have been operating in a tense and repression-infested environment prior to and following the 2011 controversial elections that put President Joseph Kabila back into power. Populist veteran politician Tshisekedi still claims he won the elections and refuses any negotiation with Kabila or be part of what he calls his ‘illegitimate’ government.
Freelance reporter Jeanne Kitenge* explained: “Every move you make is closely watched. Sometimes I have the feeling that someone is following me on my way to work or after work. I know it’s them. We are under pressure and it’s not good for our health and safety. My parents are even suggesting that I leave the country. ANR is really riding on our backs, big time.”
The ANR, which usually does not address the press, operates in total secrecy, with undercover agents scattered throughout schools, churches, marketplaces, press conferences, hotels, pubs, music shows, stadiums, and hospitals, looking for the ‘enemies’ of the state.
Renamed ANR in 1997 by the late President Laurent Desiré Kabila and rising from the ashes of Mobutu-led SNIP and DGSN, the organisation has been at the service of successive governments and ruling parties for decades, and its bosses are usually people seen loyal and close to the head of state.
Every president who comes to power appoints people he trusts at the helm of the organisation to ensure that he stays ‘safe.’ ANR is now headed by Kalev Mutond, a Kabila ‘yes man’ and die-hard supporter.
Striking fear into journalists and citizens alike
According to a source close to ANR: “These guys are told to spy on journalists and opposition politicians, as well as university lecturers who might bad-mouth the regime to the media or write books compromising the regime – these are the people they see as number one enemies and threats to the regime.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said: “That’s how it works in a dictatorship. Remember, Mobutu and Kabila senior did it. Most dictators who come to power through fraudulent means, whether by a coup d’état or elections rigging, become paranoid because every critic is questioning their legitimacy. So they resort to brutal and cruel means to stay in power.”
Some say many innocent people have died in ANR custody, but their families could not complain or request independent investigations into the deaths for fear of being persecuted.
Filming or shooting a documentary in DRC can land one in deep trouble, as ANR agents who constantly roam the country’s streets in unmarked vehicles detain everyone caught in the act, including those who have permits.
Dolly Ibefo, executive director of a local human rights organisation Voix des sans Voix (VSV, Voice of the Voiceless), recently expressed serious concern about a wave of illegal arrests and detentions of journalists, politicians, soldiers, civilians, lawyers, university lecturers and students, many of whom he said are languishing in ANR jails without access to medical care.
According to Ibefo, two of those unnecessarily jailed are septuagenarians, who are suffering serious psychological issues. Omer Tshituka Tshenda is 70-years-old, while Clement Ntabala Kalenga is 73.
In the east of the country besieged by war and massive human rights violations by both rebels and government soldiers, the climate of fear is even more frightening as ANR flexes its muscles and watches over journalists suspected of “collaborating with Rwandan spies to overthrow the government.” Some have gone into hiding, according to reports from tension-filled Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province.
“In Congo, we fear the ANR more than we fear God,” one journalist said on condition of anonymity.
*The reporter’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Source: Doha Centre for Media Freedom.