Congolese journalists covering the anti-government protests that have rocked the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the past year and a half are telling vastly different stories, depending on the outlet they work for.
In a media landscape that is heavily politicised, reporters are presenting conflicting narratives, too often based on political interests rather than facts.
Many journalists have been arrested, beaten up, or had their material destroyed. It leads to self-censorship because journalists are afraid. It goes to show the government’s desire to control the flow of information and essentially, to stop journalists from doing their job of informing the public.
Nearly 15 years since the end of the civil war, the majority of the DRC’s media outlets – approximately 80 percent – are in the hands, or under direct control, of politicians. To explain why this is the case, you have to rewind a couple of decades, to the 1990s, when the 30-year rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko officially came to an end.
“Before 1990, under the dictatorship, there were only two or three media outlets, all of which acted as the government’s megaphone. But after 1990 we had a period of political openness and there was a media explosion – hundreds of radio stations, newspapers and TV channels were created: every politician wanted their own media outlet, not to disseminate information, but rather for political propaganda,” explains Tshivis Tshivuad, secretary-general of Congolese press freedom organisation Journaliste en Danger.
With funding tied to political interests, journalists in the DRC are restricted in the stories they can – and cannot – tell.
Jennifer Bakody, a former journalist at UN-funded Radio Okapi, says that “the crux of the problems in the Congo is money. Congolese journalists need salaries. The work that they are doing serves a very important function in society but is rarely salaried in the way that we understand it to be. The money that a journalist receives is directly tied to the stories that he or she covers. The issue then very much becomes brown envelope journalism.”
Guy Muyembe, president of blogging conglomerate Habari DRC, explains that political ownership has serious consequences for journalists’ ability to deliver objective information.
“Owners intervene and define the editorial line, they force you to cover some topics and not others – for example, prioritising the coverage of political meetings or the companies funding their activities, rather than everyday life. Freedom of the press is completely restricted – there is no chance to be independent and this creates big problems.”
But political financing – and the brown envelope journalism and corruption that go hand in hand – are not the only problems journalists in the DRC are facing. Reporters who criticise the government or the country’s numerous militia organisations – through stories of human rights abuses, mismanagement or corruption – face the threat of harassment, arrest, and even murder.
Eliezer Tambwe, editor of Tokomo Wapi, an online outlet that calls for the resignation of President Joseph Kabila, was arrested by security forces in March. He believes his arrest was the result of his coverage of the nation-wide protests.
“My reporting was upsetting the regime, and that’s definitely why I was arrested. I was showing the public that it is not right that the government is spilling people’s blood, that it is suppressing people who are just demanding their rights. Because I was doing that, they needed to find a reason to silence me.”
And it’s not just Tambwe.
“Many journalists have been arrested, beaten up, or had their material destroyed,” says Tshivuad. “It leads to self-censorship because journalists are afraid. It goes to show the government’s desire to control the flow of information and essentially, to stop journalists from doing their job of informing the public.”
Tshivis Tshivuad, secretary-general, Journaliste en Danger
Jennifer Bakody, author of Radio Okapi Kindu: The Station That Helped Bring Peace to The Congo, and former journalist at Radio Okapi
Eliezer Tambwe, editor, Tokomo Wapi
Fiston Kamanda, journalist, RTNC
Guy Muyembe, president, Habari RDC
Source: Al Jazeera