DRC: And now for the bad news...
Tshivis Tshivuadi sits among piles of thin, tabloid-size newspapers that sprawl in alternating heights across his wooden desk. The general secretary of Journalists in Danger (JED), a not-for-profit group funded by various British, French and Swiss organisations, has a wide face and thick fingers.
He sits under the fluorescent lights, shielded from the afternoon sun by dusty blinds that—like many things in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—have seen better days.
It has been a rough few months.
Scroll through the “alerts” on the group’s website and you get the idea: pro-opposition journalist attacked with machete; journalist questioned for having broadcast picture of opposition leader; journalist released after 96 hours of detention without trial; and, in June, journalist assassinated in the conflict-ridden eastern region of the country.
Here’s an understatement: journalists in the Congo work in a hostile environment. They work for little or no pay from the news organisations that employ them. Most of these organisations are owned by politicians. But that doesn’t even touch on the enormity of the problem.
Tshivuadi ticks off the issues. “Those who arrest, kill and jail journalists are the ones who hold political power. Economically, we do not have sustainable press organisations. Media needs advertising and here the economy is not doing well, so there is no advertising, so there is no way to pay journalists. That’s the reason journalists are corrupt. They are manipulated by those they write about.”
And then there is the dearth of accurate information. “There is no law that obliges government officials to give information. So whoever pays gets their information in the media.” And without a way to check facts, many stories are, as Tshivuadi puts it, “imagined”.
There is one media organisation in the Congo that is more equal than most.
Radio Okapi—the brainchild of South Africa-based journalist David Smith, who set up radio stations in Somalia, Chad, the Central African Republic and Croatia—was started with funds from the United States’s agency for international development and the United Kingdom’s department for international development and with implementation support from the Swiss non-government organisation, Hirondelle.
It’s widely seen as the one United Nations programme in the country—in spite of a 20 000-strong peace-keeping force—that has made a serious impact.
‘Africa’s Second World War’
The station launched on February 25 2002, the same day as the inter-Congolese dialogues began in Sun City. The dialogues attempted to deal with what has since been dubbed “Africa’s Second World War” (the first ended with the toppling of Mobuto Sese Seko in 1997), which left millions dead.
That day Radio Okapi broadcast live from Sun City from three stations based in Kinshasa, Kisangani and Goma. It was the first—and continues to be the only—station that broadcast news across the country.
The station managed to do something that nobody else had done: it got the country talking. And it succeeded in building Africa’s second-largest radio network after the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Today Radio Okapi has eight studios throughout the country, employs more than 200 people and boasts the busiest Congo-based website. Or, as one foreign correspondent who was based in Kinshasa for three years put it: “Okapi is the shit. It’s the only place in Congo where people can get proper news.”
You’d think, with the UN as a backer, that halo would afford its journalists some protection. But two reporters based in Bukavo in the east were killed: Serge Maheshe in 2007 and Didace Namujimbo in 2008.
Still, the radio’s editor, Leonard Mulumba, differentiates his station from other media. By comparison, it is well endowed. It has well-paid reporters who work with state-of-the-art equipment.
“In this country we have media that work for the opposition or the power,” Mulumba says. “We are neutral. I know the Congolese media and I can tell you who is behind every news organisation.”
Tshivuadi compares Radio Okapi with a public broadcaster. But, he said, in the Congo no one is really able to report freely.
“As long as journalists write reports of a meeting, a press conference or on the activities of ministries, they are fine. If they write about soldiers raping women, about [President Joseph] Kabila’s military officials diverting money that should be paid to soldiers, they will be in trouble.
“When you read the local papers, the contents are not really reflective of problems in the country. Even Okapi won’t broadcast an independent report on rape. It will report on a UN report of a human rights violation, but it won’t do its own story.”
It is the website of Radio Okapi, though, that we find on the screen at Le Potentiel, next to another with a half-played game of solitaire. Around for more than 30 years, the paper is seen as one of the more credible sources of news and, with a 5 000-strong circulation, it’s one of the largest in the country. Its price, 1 500 Congolese francs (about R4), is out of reach for most Congolese.
The paper’s director of publications, Freddy Monsa Iyaka Duku, has deep-set eyes with high cheekbones that make him look like he’s constantly sneering. He wears a faded gold watch; there’s a green pen tucked into his bright white nylon shirt pocket.
The difference between Radio Okapi and Le Potentiel is telling. Duku’s desk, made of cracked white linoleum, is shoved into an airless room with three other workstations, each with its own mismatched computers and ageing screens. Everyone is working with a sheen of sweat and the slight smell of urine sits heavy in the air.
Duku tells me he feels the press in the Congo is free—he points to the sheer number of papers for proof—and says his stories “cannot be censored”. But its political lines are clear: the paper’s publisher, Modeste Mutinga, a former journalist, now a senator aligned with Kabila, also owns the television station, Tele7, upstairs.
His star, Thembo Muhindo Kashauri, known as Kash, works at the left-hand corner of Duku’s desk. He’s just come out with a 20-year collection of his editorial cartoons. On the front of the book is the country as a sinking wooden raft, the tattered flag its sail, and people holding on for dear life as crocodiles snap at their heels, ready to finish them off. Its title says it all: “Twenty years of looting, deluge and chaos.”
With smiling eyes, Kash tells me that he’s been threatened in the past. But he’s not bothered much these days. As he says, if he pushes it too far, his editor simply won’t run his cartoon.
The opposition media, it seems, doesn’t have that sort of luxury.
On the terrace of the burned out RLTV building, “Tshsikedi: President of the DRC” is scratched in black marker on to chipboard. The station has been shut down all week, ever since veteran opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi made a phone call from South Africa in which he said he was already president and called for his supporters to break political prisoners out of jail if the ruling party didn’t let them out.
A few dozen supporters gather outside the building under blue canopies watching a fuzzy 13-inch black and white TV. Ever since early September, when the building was petrol bombed, they have been broadcasting from outside the station. Inside, the building is destroyed. Employees have been instructed by the police to leave it as it was left in the early hours of September 6, when 20 people were reported to have attacked the building with Molotov cocktails.
In the editing room, the last remaining intact items lie on the floor: a computer screen, a few cardboard boxes filled with documents and a pile of electrical cords that lies next to what once may have been an air conditioner. In the studio ceiling boards lie in clumps on the floor and cords hang, frazzled and disconnected, from the ceiling.
Under a palm tree outside Gerard Lemba, the 39-year-old presenter of a popular weekly opposition television programme that speaks of all things Tshisekedi, sits in a plastic chair. RLTV, he explains, like most media outlets, is owned by a politician, this time opposition parliamentarian Roger Lumbala.
“The power,” he says, “is not happy with my programme.”
Lemba has been getting threatening SMSes for months and the messages are clear. “You will see what’s going to happen next,” they read. “If you don’t leave this country, you are going to die.” Lumbala wrote to police to ask for protection, but the request, said Lemba, was not honoured.
He assures me that politics and pay-offs are just the way it goes here.
“It’s the system,” he says. Lemba laughs as he tells me of the “tips” journalists receive that have their very special term, “kupage”, named after a journalism professor who studied the widespread phenomenon of reporters acting like PR practitioners, paid to get their clients into the media.
And what about Radio Okapi? Everyone, he tells me, gets paid when no one is looking.
“No journalist in this country can say they don’t take money. If someone tells you they don’t take money, they are lying.”
The media in Congo are, like those in most countries, a reflection of the society in which it functions. This one is racked with poverty, immersed in endemic corruption and violence, clouded with misinformation and eaten alive by a political system that feeds on its people. And what that means for the future can’t be good news.
This is the second in a two-part series on the Democratic Republic of Congo in the run-up to the elections. Travel-related expenses were supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)