samedi 14 mars 2009

The lack of access to information in the DRC, the use of unconventional methods, and new ways to get the stories published

Like in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, accessing information sources, both public and private, in the DRC is still a major challenge for a journalist. Access to state archives is a superhuman effort, even when these archives are not subject to any 'state secret' regulation. When I investigated the abortion and abandonment of babies in Kinshasa , wanting to know how many such cases were registered in maternity and other public services, or with the police and in the justice system, literally every door I knocked on remained closed. For two months I tried in vain to get official information on the number of "illegal" abortions and the abandonment of babies in the Kinshasa streets. As a lawyer by profession, I am aware that this information does exist in the social, health, justice and census departments. Authorities simply don't want to give it out.

In this situation, only a certain flexibility would get me the information I was looking for. Whilst I applied other methods on the side, like a mini survey amongst young city women, I also approached old friends and acquaintances who worked for the relevant departments.

I had to do a lot of convincing to get them to help me, because they could be suspected of 'leaking' and then victimized. Fortunately, they understood my arguments that this information was in the interest of the Congolese public and that the behaviour of the officials was against modern norms of social justice and transparency. But in some case I had to resort to the payment of small 'commissions' in order to get the information. On the Congo, that's just the way it is…

Is this ethical? I would say, in most cases, yes. An investigative journalist is also an activist for freedom of the press and the public's right to information. If the investigative journalist does not research and publish information in the public interest, holders of power will continue to deceive the public by hiding important information about their management of public affairs while they commit corruption, embezzlement, theft, and even murder. Therefore I strongly support, in the DRC at this present time, a special code of ethics that allows for the use of unconventional methods to access information. The only criteria here should be that, firstly, the issue that is being investigated is clearly in the public interest, and secondly, that the published information should not harm anyone,-except, of course, the individuals that have committed the exposed misdeeds. And then the only harm should be that of the exposure of these misdeeds, and no other.

A legal, but suprisingly underused method, is the technique I used of creating my own 'statistics'. A so-called 'small survey', like the one I did of young city women in Kinshasa, can give a reporter a quick general idea of the scope and importance of the issue that he/she is investigating. I asked a sample selection of 20 Kinshasa women of different social backgrounds and professions about their personal experiences with abortion, and found that the majority either had had an abortion or knew somebody who had. This allowed me to proceed with some basis to the story.

This method should in my view be promoted and used much more vigorously, especially in countries like mine, where documentary information is so hard to access. A small survey, even if methodologically not on the same level as those produced by expert polling agencies, can help a lot in creating a reporters' own database.

We have, however, still another big problem when it comes to publishing investigative stories in my country. Our draconian information laws make it almost impossible to publish anything about powerful personalities in the political, economical and military elite. Any published negative information regarding such a person can, and is often, prosecuted as a case of 'defamation', 'insult', or a 'false rumor', even if it is true and even if you have the evidence to base such accusations on. With or without evidence, these are 'media crimes' in the DRC. When VIP's really get angry with you, you can even be killed by 'unknowns'. This has happened to Bapuwa Mwamba, Serge Maheshe and Didace Namujimbo..

A third, massive, problem, is the reluctance of our media houses to publish information that does not generate income for the media house. Our press is not at the stage where media owners see it as their business to furnish good journalism products to the public. Most of them see themselves as public relations vehicles for sources –politicians and other VIP's- that will pay money to see their names and speeches carried and broadcast. As a result, for example, my article on abortions is being carried only outside, and not inside, the DRC, because publishing it is simply not attractive to our media owners : it doesn't come with money or important connections, it is simply an informative piece. And even if the man (or the woman) in the street may buy the newspaper because he or she is interested to read about the deaths of women and the abandonment of babies, the street purchase of the newspaper is not what matters to the media house. The income from the public is too little, and therefore the public interest doesn't matter.

We will have a long way to go to develop a proper, modern press in my country. In a first effort, intended to bolster a journalism that focuses on the right of the public to know, we –a few colleagues and myself- have put in place an organisation called "Publication En Danger". PED brings together journalists, activists and researchers in order to promote the public's right to information through professional journalism. PED campaigns for the publication of public interest stories by media houses, and for the journalists' right to access information in the course of their pursuit of such stories.

We haven't booked any major victories yet, as we have only existed for a few months, but have good hope that we will be able to report some progress at the next African Investigative Journalism Conference. Who knows, maybe by that time the above story may have been published in Kinshasa….
L'auteur défend les libertés dans un pays en voie de devenir un Etat, une République et une Démocratie...