The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to stop harassing and detaining journalists after at least 18 reporters were arrested while attempting to cover anti-government protests at the end of last month. Demonstrators across the country had gathered to demand the publication of an election timetable that would propel the exit of President Joseph Kabila, who has held onto his seat in office despite the fact he was constitutionally required to step down last December. According to Reporters Without Borders, some of the journalists were physically assaulted and forced by police to delete material they recorded at the demonstrations before they were allowed to go free.
Denouncing the treatment of reporters as a crude attempt to censor the protests, and highlighting the chilling effect the harassment and detention of journalists would have on Congolese media, CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal called on the government to allow members of the press to report freely without fear of interference from the security services. RSF also condemned the arrests and demanded that police chiefs respect the rights of journalists reporting on political demonstrations. Unfortunately for Congo’s fragile democracy, the pleas of both organizations are likely to have little impact on the government’s attitude to the country’s fourth estate and dissent from civil society organizations.
This brutal crackdown on journalistic freedom is only among the most recent examples of how Congolese authorities have been wielding violence and intimidation to stifle dissent. And it’s symptomatic of the regime’s broader brutalization of Congolese society. Speaking after the protests, a U.N. official voiced concern that Kabila’s administration may be using exploiting growing social unrest and ethnic violence across the country as excuses to further delay elections. Scott Campbell, head of Central and West Africa at the U.N. Human Rights Office, suggested it was possible officials might even be coordinating some of the bloodshed to use as justifications to postpone the votes, knowing full well that allowing Kabila to remain president will make further violence and human rights violations all the more likely.
State of emergency in the DRC?
While there is little evidence so far that the Congolese government is stoking ethnic divisions, the suggestion that Kabila’s regime may be actively fomenting violence and using unrest as a reason to further delay elections and restrict citizens’ rights in the name of security is a perfectly reasonable assumption. In the face of multiple crises that have erupted since his mandate expired – including numerous kidnappings, prison breaks, and rising militia violence – Kabila last month reshuffled the leaders of his national police force, installing General Dieudonne Amuli Bahigwa as his new chief of police. Amuli led an offensive against the feared Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in eastern Congo in 2009 – experience the Congolese regime no doubt believes will prove invaluable as it faces increased resistance to its refusal to relinquish power.
The reshuffle also it clear that Kabila expects further dissent after Congo’s electoral commission said last month it is unlikely a vote will be held before the end of this year due to the ongoing conflict in the Kasai region. The announcement was made in spite of an agreement the government made with the opposition stipulating that a poll would take place before 2017 is out. Increasingly frustrated by the delay, exiled Presidential hopeful Moïse Katumbi joined the call for peaceful protests against the government’s refusal to hold a poll, resulting in the July 31 demonstrations that led to the arrests that many saw as an example of the tough-line approach the country’s new police leaders intend to take with opposition activists.
Katumbi, who fled Congo to seek asylum in Europe last year in a bid to avoid prison time over a series of politically motivated charges, has the support of Alternance pour la République (AR), G7 as well as representatives of the civil society.
While Katumbi might be regarded as the DRC’s biggest hope, however, Kabila isn’t known for letting up. Dating back as far as 2015, he has deployed multiple delay tactics that have helped set the scene for his overextended say in power. Now, given the rising chaos in the country, and increasingly harsh responses by the government to any signs of dissent, it’s become abundantly clear he plans to settle in for the long term. This Monday, Congolese security forces killed at least 14 members of a separatist sect during clashes in Kinshasa and the city of Matadi following renewed demonstrations against Kabila, prompting Katumbi to denounce the violence and call out the regime for artificially trying to declare a state of emergency and further delay elections.
But what’s even more chilling that this latest wave of conflict is the fact that shortly thereafter, Congolese authorities ordered Internet capacity to be slowed so that it could not be used to transfer images by social media. Soon, it seems, if there is no action to stop the government, even the international community could soon be cut off from observing – and denouncing – the devolving chaos in the country and Kabila’s blatant efforts to turn the country back into a dictatorship.
Photo caption: Matchbox Media Collective on Flickr