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Fear of Death Chills Journalism in Congo

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

After a murderous nine months for local reporters, three female journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo received death threats in September. Many weeks and one national protest later, official investigators offer little hope of bringing justice.

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After a murderous nine months for local reporters, three female journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo received death threats in September. Many weeks and one national protest later, official investigators offer little hope of bringing justice.
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After a murderous nine months for local reporters, three female journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo received death threats in September.BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of the Congo (WOMENSENEWS)--Jolly Kamuntu hasn't missed a single day of work.

Despite being named in a text message death threat, which was sent to the phones of two female colleagues in early September, Kamuntu continues her on-air work for the local station, Radio Mandeleo, in this war-scarred corner of Central Africa.

"I continue coming to work because it's my passion," said the 33-year old reporter and producer. She is eight months pregnant and already the mother of two.

Kamuntu has a guard at her house over night who accompanies her to work in the morning and back home in the evenings.

Her program, supported by a Swedish nongovernmental organization called Benevolencia, covers legal issues and human rights, much of it related to rape and sexual violence. Though she's been a journalist for nine years, Kamuntu said she is also trained as a lawyer.

"Since I was very little it was my dream to be a journalist, to be the voice of the weak," she said.

The two other women named in the text message were Delphie Namuto and Caddy Adzuba of the U.N.-sponsored network Radio Okapi. Among other topics, both have also covered gender-based violence.

With little progress in the investigation of the threat, many journalists say they also feel at risk.

All three of the women and several of their male colleagues said that receiving threats was nothing new to them. However, the timing of this one was particularly unsettling, coming on the heels of the funeral for the third Bukavu-based journalist to be murdered in the last three years--all of them men.

"The threats were a minor event in the last year, I'm sorry to say," said Florian Barbey, head of Radio Okapi for South Kivu province. The first two journalists killed, Serge Maheshe and Didace Namujimbo, worked for Radio Okapi. Bruno Koko Chirambiza, a Radio Star reporter, was murdered in August. "We had a death, a dead body."

Namuto and Adzuba have left Bukavu and are living in Kinshasa, the country's capital, where they are working at the station's headquarters. Neither has broadcast on air since September.

Missing Direct Contact

Adzuba's work once entailed reporting in the field, interviewing people whose lives have been impacted by Congo's brutal and ongoing conflict. Now that her work is anonymous and restricted to the Internet, she misses the direct contact she had with survivors of rape and sexual violence and those affected by the war.

About 5.4 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have died since 1996, poverty is widespread and instability continues throughout the east despite a 2002 peace accord and elections in 2006.

"These people were so vulnerable," Adzuba, 28, said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa. "They needed support and I was trying to support them."

All three journalists have restricted the hours they work; never too early and never too late.

Namuto, 35, closely monitors her phone calls and used a new number for an interview with Women's eNews.

"Sometimes I feel a revolt because of this threat message. I feel I have to do my job even more professionally," she said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa. "But then I am a mother. My son is 4 years old and my daughter is one-and-half. So I say, what would happen to my children?"

Corruption and impunity are rampant in the Congo, as is general violence. Perpetrators come from the ranks of the military, the many armed militias operating throughout the east and, increasingly, civilians--especially in crime-riddled cities like Bukavu. The lawless combination is a potentially lethal mix for journalists trying to highlight injustice and the sufferings of ordinary citizens.

Barbey, of Radio Okapi, and Kizito Mushizi Nfundiko, director of Radio Mandeleo, said none of the women's previous reporting stands out as likely to provoke a violent backlash. Kamuntu expressed incredulity that the threat to her life came at a time of relative calm in Bukavu.

"I had tough interviews with Laurent Nkunda when the rebellion was high in the city," she said of the former powerful rebel leader now in Rwandan custody. "Now that there is peace and security. To be threatened, I was really worried."

Coverage Remains Unchanged

Although Barbey and Nfundiko said they are cautious about what they broadcast and continually talk about safety precautions with their reporters, they have not changed anything in their coverage. Nfundiko said it is a show of defiance.

Yet Chochou Namegabe, coordinator and a founder of the Women's Media Association of South Kivu (AFEM in French), which prepares broadcasts for 10 stations across the region about women's issues, particularly in rural areas, admitted some self-censorship, especially in reporting about the military.

"We are careful about what we say," she said.

Jean Baptiste Baderha, Radio Mandeleo's lead reporter and a member of Journalists in Danger, a Central African press freedom organization, put the risk calculations he and colleagues in Bukavu make in simple terms.

"It's better to be a bad journalist who is alive," he said, "than a good journalist who is dead."

Soon after the death threat, Kamuntu, Namuto and Adzuba filed a case with the military, as well as with the national police and MONUC, the U.N. mission in the Congo. Attempts to reach the Bukavu-based prosecutor and one of his attorneys handling the case were unsuccessful. A police inspector canceled an interview saying he could not speak without his boss present.

However, several military officials did speak to Women's eNews, though they refused to be named.

Military's Jurisdiction

Because the threat explicitly cited the use of a gun to commit the killings--"a bullet to the head," it said--the military has primary jurisdiction, the officials said.

Military officials said they contacted Vodacom, the mobile phone provider, to trace the number used for the text message threat.

"Vodacom responded that this number was never used before the messages or after," one official said. "I think the person bought the SIM card only to send this message. Therefore, we don't mean that we stop the investigation. We are waiting to see if he'll use it again."

Barbey, of Radio Okapi, said the extensive press the case has received hasn't helped. Had it been kept quiet, he said, there may have been a small chance to better trace the phone number used. His journalists might also have had options other than leaving Bukavu.

But the attention has also lead to an outpouring of support for the women, which they said has buoyed their spirits. The Congolese National Press Union held marches throughout the country in October to urge the government to act to protect journalists.

Kamuntu, who joined the marchers in Bukavu, expressed optimism that the investigation would eventually bear fruit. Others were skeptical.

"I'm sorry, but I find that our justice is like that, like dead," said Nfundiko, of Radio Mandeleo. He and several colleagues cited widespread impunity and corruption throughout all branches of government in the Congo.

Adzuba said she was not at all surprised by the lack of progress in the investigation given that the "more acute cases" of her murdered colleagues were never solved.

A September MONUC press release noted that the murders "have never been elucidated and those who committed them are still at large."

Military officials, however, said they arrested two individuals who were later convicted and imprisoned for Maheshe's murder and have arrested about 10 suspects in Namujimbo's killing. Adzuba questioned the findings.

"They were false investigations," she said.

Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

For more information:

South Kivu Women's Media Association (AFEM/SK)
http://englishafemsk.blogspot.com/

MONUC, the U.N. Mission to the Congo
http://monuc.unmissions.org/

Radio Okapi
http://www.radiookapi.net/

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