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Pushing for press freedom in central Africa

Independent and free media is not a given in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, as the country starts to think about next year's presidential elections, it is fast becoming a necessity.

A group of men look at pinned up newspapers

Plenty of papers to pick from, but do they tell the truth?

No news is good news, it seems, if it comes from the DRC. The kind of Western headlines that make mention of the vast central African country focus on corruption, mineral conflicts, war, mass-scale rape and slavery of women, and most recently the ambush and brutal murder of three United Nations peacekeepers.

There is a lot to report on, but as the DCR's low ranking in the press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders underscores, it is not a place where journalists have the freedom to say and write what they want. In 2009, the African country stood at 146th place in the table of 175 nations.

Ambroise Pierre, head of the Africa desk of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, told Deutsche Welle that journalists working in the Democratic Republic of Congo are frequently silenced by intimidation and brutality, and sometimes even by murder.

At least eight people are known to have been killed across the country for their reporting activities since 2005. In some cases legal proceedings have never been initiated, in others trials failed to meet international standards and left the reporting community with the message that the judicial system does not have their backs.

"It is extremely dangerous to be a journalist in the DRC because the people who are enemies of press freedom have very few limits," Pierre said.

Play safe, say nothing

Armed soldiers in the greenery

Congolese soldiers outside a camp for those displaced by war

Pierre says the situation in eastern Congo is particularly taboo and media organizations daring enough to cover such stories as army mutinies or levels of discontent among unpaid soldiers could well find their offices the targets of raids by military officials.

The only way to play safe is to keep quiet about things people don't want to hear. And newspapers instinctively know what that is.

But some are not prepared to keep quiet about what is happening in the country they live in. One such is 'L'Observateur', a daily established and published by one-time Congolese ambassador Mankenda Voka whose travels around the world opened his eyes to the scope for involving the public in political debate. As far as he was concerned, his fellow countrymen and women were the least well-informed in all of Africa.

"I realized that if I wanted to help my country I would have to do something to help stimulate ideas," he said, adding that there are simply not enough independent publications in the DRC.

Private mouthpiece

Which is not to say there is a general dearth of media in the third-largest nation in Africa. Pierre says it is home to countless newspapers and television and radio stations, but that the journalists working for them are often polarized.

A firebomb flies through the sky above of a crowd

A scene from an opposition rally ahead of the 2006 presidential elections

"Most of them belong to political parties or are attached to candidates that create media outlets as a means of communicating their own interests."

He cites the run-up to the 2006 presidential elections - the first free poll in the Democratic Republic of Congo since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960 - as a prime example of the way the country's press apparatus works. Back then electoral candidates, local governments and governors were busy establishing their own media organizations.

And with only a little over a year to go before the next presidential ballot, he said there is some evidence of that trend being repeated in the race to succeed the current president Joseph Kabila. Governors in some regions in the east are already setting up newspapers and radio stations to get their messages out to the electorate.

The challenge ahead

Mankenda Voka, however, is not happy to leave it up to non-independent journalists to do the job alone.

"We have a lot of political parties and there are a lot of people who want to be president," he said. "We are a democracy, which means everybody deserves a chance."

Earlier in the week, Etienne Tshisekedi of the opposition Union for Social Development and Progress told a Belgian newspaper that he would challenge Kabila in 2011. His party boycotted the previous ballot, which he described then as now, as a 'masquerade.'

A woman on the street preparing plants to cook

Poverty is a major problem in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Reporters Without Borders also see the upcoming elections as a chance to highlight the problems facing journalists. Ahead of the celebrations staged in Kinshasa to mark the Democratic Republic of Congo's 50th anniversary of independence, the organization called on the international community to "work together to improve the climate for journalists."

Ambroise Pierre says they face a long path ahead, but that they will continue taking steady steps down it.

"We will keep pushing to get the DRC's partners to pressure Kinshasa for improvements," he said. "We have not managed to secure change yet, but the partners hear us and they know we are pressuring them."

Interview with Mankenda Voka conducted by Antje Diekhans, WDR correspondant in Nairobi

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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