The World

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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"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)

MONUC, the U.N. Mission to the Congo

Radio Okapi

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