Lighthouse in the Dark

One activist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is denouncing acts of violence against journalists

A man listening to the radio on the streets of Luofu, North Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. / Eduardo Soteras, AFP, Getty Images

Telling the truth can be an act of bravery.

In 1997, Tshivis Tshivuadi, a journalist for the Congolese daily Le Phare, or The Lighthouse, wrote a controversial article alleging that President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was recruiting young people from his village to form a private militia — under the guise of a presidential guard.

The reaction was swift and harsh.

Six armed men came to the house of Tshivis’s editor, and then remanded him to a solitary cell before imprisoning him for three months in the notorious Makala Central Prison. Tshivis said security and intelligence services also pursued him, forcing him to flee his house and leave his wife and children behind while he spent nearly a year in hiding.

Tshivis Tshivuadi, Journaliste en Danger general secretary. / Karim Benard-Dende, Internews

Tshivis kept writing for Le Phare, undeterred by the recurring abductions, arrests and interrogations of his colleagues. He also became a champion of journalists’ rights in the DRC, co-founding Journaliste en Danger (Journalists in Danger), supported by USAID-implementing partner Internews.

For the past 20 years, Journaliste en Danger has publicized and denounced acts of violence against journalists in the country. The organization has provided legal support to journalists prosecuted for their work, and personal security trainings to reporters. It has even launched independent investigations into the murders of journalists left unsolved by Congolese authorities.

The situation is only getting worse, said Karim Benard-Dende, Internews country director. While media laws in the DRC are relatively liberal, journalists’ rights are not protected in practice. Threats and attacks have imposed a culture of self-censorship, particularly around issues of resource extraction industries, government corruption and the ongoing violence between the government and militias.

Tshivis said 2017 has been particularly grim.

In April, three journalists were physically assaulted and their equipment was confiscated by police officers while covering a peaceful demonstration in Goma, the capital of the eastern province of Nord-Kivu. In July, two Agence France Presse journalists working in Kinshasa were arrested and threatened by men who identified themselves as military intelligence agents. Later that month, at least 18 journalists who were covering anti-government protests in Kinshasa were harassed, detained or beaten by security forces.

Radio equipment in a USAID-supported Internews studio in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. / USAID

A Global Trend

The persecution of journalists in the DRC is part of a global trend. Around the world, autocrats and warlords are targeting journalists with unveiled threats, arrests, arson, assault and murder.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there have been 1,258 journalists killed since 1992, and 259 journalists were jailed worldwide in 2016, up from 199 the previous year.

Reporters Without Borders has identified 2017 as a “tipping point,” as physical and virtual assaults on journalists become increasingly commonplace. The crackdowns on truth and the rise in disinformation are components of closing civic and political space worldwide. They have reported that even in established democracies, increasing surveillance and attempts to delegitimize the press are restricting effective press freedoms.

Finding Solutions

In these challenging times, the resilience and ingenuity of media organizations that maintain rigorous news production is providing hope for journalists around the world.

USAID supported the development of 58 community radio stations in the DRC, providing all the equipment and technical training necessary for the provincial stations to operate independently — including solar energy systems providing power to isolated stations.

A radio journalist at work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. / Internews

They’re primarily staffed by volunteers, with teachers and farmers producing features and volunteer journalists-in-training producing daily news. While national outlets are more likely to mix opinion with news, Karim said these provincial radio stations have emerged as a critical source of more fact-based reporting.

USAID believes that rigorous, independent media is a pillar of free societies. Fact-based reporting helps organize citizenry, provides a platform for mutual understanding in societies divided by conflict, and enables positive political reform. USAID continues to invest in expanded internet access, professional journalist training, and legal reforms to protect journalists.

In the DRC, USAID has also supported initiatives focused on promoting the role of women in the media, increasing the presence of moderate voices in political processes and broadening journalists’ knowledge of their legal rights.

Tshivis’s work, which began at Le Phare, has become a model for unflinching civic media movements.

In 2014, a local Congolese government official issued a public statement reflecting on the importance of the USAID-supported local radio stations:

“You have to continue to be the church in the middle of the village,” he wrote. “The light that brings clarity to everything and for everybody.”

About the Author

Mardy Shualy is a Presidential Management Fellow with the Civil Society and Media Division of USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.