/ 24 July 2006

Shadow over DRC poll

With just over a week to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) first democratic vote since independence, fears of possible chaos have increased after four people were killed last week at an election rally in the country’s Nord Kivu province. It follows another incident where seven people were killed at another opposition rally, also in the north-east of the country earlier in the week. International election monitors have expressed concern that security force members are the main culprits of violence in the four week-long election campaign, and have called on President Joseph Kabila’s government to confine its army to barracks, according to the German Press Agency DPA.

Despite 17 000 United Nations troops that have been in the country since 1999, security remains a concern in the DRC, with more than three million people killed in recent conflict.

In addition, the failure of the Congolese media, and the general atmosphere of intimidation and disinformation, are key reasons for fears that the election will not deliver a democratic outcome.

South Africa’s 128-member strong observer mission, headed by Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula, has this week joined an advance team already in the DRC for the July 30 UN-organised elections.

The team will be deployed at some of the 50 000 voting stations across this vast Central African country. More than 25-million of the DRC’s 58-million people have registered to vote in parliamentary and presidential elections with a choice of 33 candidates, including the incumbent Kabila, whom most pundits rate as overwhelming favourite to be returned to office.

Because the DRC has enormous mineral wealth, a lot is at stake and that has been reflected in the intense, but rabidly partisan campaigning. Does Kabila (Mister Cash) pay people who vote for him, as popular singers have it on television? Is he diverting the DRC’s money to his “foreign friends” in Rwanda and Tanzania?

And will a vote for Kabila’s enemy, opposition party leader Jean Pierre Bemba, support the rape of girls by Bemba’s MLC (Mouvement pour la Liberation du Congo) soldiers?

These are among the strident propaganda messages to DRC citizens, who go to the polls in the virtual absence of reliable media information on what the candidates stand for.

The hundreds of newspapers and TV stations in the DRC are almost all funded by politicians and business people seeking control of the country’s vast natural resources and profitable contracts, mainly with Belgian and South African companies. They have become a weapon in the struggle for power — and two journalists have been killed in the crossfire.

Belgian European Union commissioner Louis Michel, European observers, the UN and hundreds of South African diplomats are working round the clock “to get a democratically elected government in place, so that we can get out and leave these people to themselves”, as one South African put it.

A research report commissioned by the Netherlands Institute on Southern Africa, and compiled by members of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (Fair), sees the murder of journalists Bapuwa Mwamba and Franck Ngyke Kangundu as the work of powerful figures angered by unflattering articles about the government.

Employed by the opposition paper Le Phare, Mwamba was assassinated in Kinshasa on July 8. He had just written a highly critical article on the “climate of police intimidation” in the election campaign.

Kangundu, murdered last November, worked as a propagandist for La Reference Plus, a newspaper funded by the ruling Party of the People for Reconstruction and Democracy, while allegedly publishing opposition-friendly articles in other newspapers under pseudonyms.

The report makes no finding on which side pulled the trigger, but Kangundu may have courted trouble by openly discussing his conflicting friendships and loyalties. On journalistic practice in the DRC, it notes: “If you know too much, you have to be silent as the grave whilst remaining blindly loyal to your sponsors.”

Giving background, the report says one of Kangundu’s secret opposition articles accused Kabila of diverting $30-million to the education sector in Tanzania, and of effectively being more loyal to Tanzania — where he was exiled in his youth with his father, Laurent — than to the DRC.

The article, which appeared last year amid a massive strike in the DRC’s own education sector, is said to have infuriated Kabila, who summoned the head of the Congolese Press Union from his bed to explain himself.

It also led to a massive secret service and police hunt for the source of the story, prompting the editor of the offending newspaper, Patrice Booto, to vanish into hiding.

The Fair report says Booto surfaced two months later “to talk with the chief of the secret police, Mira Ndjoku”. A day later, Kangundu and his wife were shot dead.

The culprits of the double assassination are thought to still be at large. Under heavy pressure from local and international press freedom organisations, Kinshasa police arrested suspects but then released them, saying they had made a mistake. They then arrested the “real” perpetrators, whose trial began last week after a six-month delay.

Most observers dismiss the trial as a “masquerade”.

The Fair report also fingers opposition parties for using “mafia methods” to intimidate the media. Bemba is accused of threatening television journalist Kabeya Pindi Pasi — also the head of the Congolese Press Union — after the latter produced a programme critical of him.

The production, aided by the Kabila government, accused Bemba’s forces of widespread rapes and murders in the Central African Republic. Pasi fled to Kenya after the programme was flighted, saying Bemba had sent a death squad to kill him. Bemba denies this.

Compounding the confusion is the existence of two media watchdog bodies, the government-friendly Haute Autorité des Medias and the opposition-linked Observatoire des Medias Congolais. It was with the latter that Bemba’s party, the MLC, lodged a complaint against Pasi.

This week, in line with the opposition’s central message that the president is not “a real Congolese”, an anti-Kabila newspaper published a picture of him in a Rwandese military uniform inspecting Rwandese armed forces with President Paul Kagame. It appears to have been digitally manipulated.

The Fair report comments that while there are journalists in the DRC who value truth above money, and have not sold themselves to political or business patrons, they are in the minority.

It says this puts voters in the impossible position of having to cast their ballots without knowing what candidates really intend doing after they are elected.

Additional reporting by Mail & Guardian reporter

Evelyn Groenink is a coordinator at Fair and was involved in compiling the Netherlands Institute on Southern Africa’s report