mardi 11 août 2009

DR CONGO bans Radio France Internationale, pending a tougher law on press freedom

It is “for reasons of security and defense of the country” because “we cannot allow a media outlet, no matter which it is, to assume the power to give or distribute information which discourages or demoralizes the troops at the frontline.”

It is in such terms that Lambert Mende Omalanga, the minister of Communication and Media of the Democratic Republic of Congo, justified the government's decision to
ban the broadcasts of Radio France Internationale across the territory. He was speaking during a press conference on Tuesday at the Grand Hotel in the capital Kinshasa, with more than a hundred journalists from the national and international press in attendance, including myself.
According to the minister, the government officially terminated the contract, which bound the Paris-based station to the DRC. Reason? According to the Minister, RFI “has persisted in fanciful reporting about the war raging in DRC as well as in statements of a nature too demoralize the Congolese armed forces.”

The DRC is plagued by a series of wars, which have made 5 million victims since 1996, when rebels ousted former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The current conflict sees recurring fighting between the government issued from historic democratic elections in 2006 and various local and foreign militias in eastern provinces rich in minerals. Eastern Congo is also one of the most
dangerous regions for journalists in Africa despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping force worldwide.
Like many faithful listeners of RFI in Kinshasa, I heard the station’s programs here on 97.5 FM until July 24 around 3 p.m. local time. People living here—who are used to getting news, particularly reports about the war situation tearing our country, via the airwaves of RFI—are divided about the impact of the ban. For some, “fortunately it is still possible to listen to RFI via shortwave.” For others “this ban is not as bad as there are several other international radio and television stations that can provide information as reliable as RFI.”

What led the government to take this drastic step could stem from events in 2006, when Ghislaine Dupont, then the RFI correspondent in the DRC, produced a number of stories that did not please the government. The stories reported rising criminality within the ranks of the army, exposing rapes, looting, embezzlement of soldiers’ pay by superior officers in total impunity.

The coverage of Dupont, who was subsequently
expelled, was particularly sensitive then since the DRC was beginning a new political and institutional era with general elections, the first since the country’s independence in 1960. The elections installed a president, a new national parliament, provincial parliaments and governments, as well as a new constitution and this democratic renewal revived the hopes of all the Congolese.
The Dupont case could thus be the straw that broke the camel's back and the origin of various and successive misunderstandings that have strained the relations between RFI and the DRC authorities. On Tuesday, Mende accused RFI of violating Article 3 of its agreement with the government, signed on July 13, 2001, which stipulates that the station “undertakes to respect Congolese laws.” He also said RFI violated Articles 78 and 87 of Congo’s press law, Law No. 22 of June 1996, against “knowingly” demoralizing the troops in a time of war.

When informing becomes a crime, is it better to shut up before suffering the wrath of sanction? Or should we take the risk of informing on behalf of the public's right to information?

In fact, the ban of RFI raises the great debate on the freedoms the Congolese press gained more than a decade ago. For Kinshasa-based press media advocacy organization
Journaliste en Danger, the ban “denotes without a doubt a trampling of the freedom of the press.” However, some journalists like Zechariah Bababaswe, who runs a local-language newspaper, interpret the ban very differently. “The government's decision is very important and necessary to call to order these media that exceed in the distortion of information and the dissemination of false information.”

Bababaswe is right insofar as it is a journalist’s duty to separate facts from rumors and inform the public with an independent, critical eye. In DRC, such principles are tested, not only by government
repression, and impunity for our murdered colleagues, but also enormous financial and political pressures, which are amplified by constraints to support the government without questioning its handling of the war effort. The censorship and self-censorship are clearly apparent with the war coverage of the national, public media, Radiotélévision Nationale Congolaise, which the majority political group in power has turned into a propaganda outlet, as well as other private media outlets. This has led most Congolese to turn to foreign media and Radio Okapi, a joint project of the Hirondelle Foundation and the United Nations Mission in DRC (MONUC) for more or less reliable, independent news. It is therefore considered a trusted source of information on the war situation in the DRC.

The ban of RFI occurred less than two weeks after the release of reports of three international human rights organizations, namely the
International Federation of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Global Witness, which accused the government of “not respecting human rights” and of carrying out a repression of activists and political dissidents. Reacting to the allegations, Mende declared in the press conference that the reports were “slanderous” and “called for the dismantling of the country as well as its new institutions.” It is noteworthy to remember that, in June, Mende accused Dupont of “attempting to destabilize the country” and RFI of spreading “theses” calling for the redrawing of DRC's borders after the station reported government setbacks in managing the army and the peace process, among others.

In both cases, the government, in official rhetoric, did not dispute the substance of the allegations in either the human rights reports or RFI’s reports. In fact, Mende warned that the government would not allow any media outlet to report information undermining troop morale, “no matter the accuracy of the information.” This is in line with Article 74 of the Congolese Penal Code, which judges constantly refer to when trying journalists for defamation. In fact, in libel cases, Congolese jurisprudence exclusively protects a person’s honor, at the expense of the falsity or veracity of allegations, which is considered irrelevant.
Is the ban on RFI raison d'état against fundamental freedoms? From the viewpoint of government, it is justified. But, considering that a vast majority of the Congolese follows this media outlet, perhaps it will not be long before the listeners express a viewpoint that could lead to a breach of trust with the authorities.
Nothing is said ...

Charles-M. Mushizi is a freelance investigative journalist,
blogger and lawyer in Kinshasa. _________________________________________

L'auteur défend les libertés dans un pays en voie de devenir un Etat, une République et une Démocratie...