World Press Freedom Day 2019 in the DRC

Date: May 3, 2019

Subject: World Press Freedom Day in the DRC

Op-ed by Michael A. Hammer
U.S. Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo

There is no true democracy without press freedom and today we salute the key role of the media in a free society. The United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993 to recognize the importance of press freedom throughout the world and encourage governments to ensure press freedom and independent media are respected.  Having served as a spokesperson at the White House and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at the State Department, I have deep appreciation for journalists’ courage and determination to find the truth and hold governments accountable. And, while I may not have always liked their reporting, I have always respected and appreciated the media’s vital contributions to democracy.

Freedom of the press is particularly important for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has just experienced its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power. For democracy to grow, journalists must be able to do their jobs freely. The DRC has an impressive number of independent radio and television stations across the country. I have experienced the professionalism and dedication of Congolese reporters in interviews from Bukavu to Butembo, Kalemie to Kananga, and in Goma, Lubumbashi and Kinshasa. These journalists, women and men, young and seasoned, television, radio, print and online, ask tough questions, expose the truth, work to inform the public and hold governments accountable. However, many journalists have in the past been subjected to threats, arrest, or intimidation. Last November, with support from USAID and others, the Congolese NGO Journalists en Danger (JED) reported 62 abuses of press freedoms in DRC from January to August 2018 including the firing of three journalists from DRC’s national radio-television station RTNC for trying to report on opposition party events in advance of the December 2018 elections.

The December elections have brought change and now there is an expectation that media will be able to operate without fear. Newly elected President Felix Tshisekedi’s stated commitment to press freedom and respect for human rights marks a major and important shift toward a better future for Congo. Since taking office, President Tshisekedi has directed RTNC to cover opposition rallies, released political prisoners, closed illegal detention facilities, replaced the head of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR), instructed security forces to stop arbitrary arrests, and referred police responsible for excessive use of force to the judiciary for prosecution. It is essential now for local government authorities, security forces, and politicians across the DRC to ensure that their treatment of the media aligns with this new vision.  Abuse and intimidation can no longer be tolerated. Openness, access and transparency should be the norm.

DRC currently ranks 154 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom index. This is not good. In January, RSF said that there were “more abuses against journalists and the media in the DRC in 2018 than in any other country in sub-Saharan Africa.” For 2018, RSF recorded 110 press freedom violations including “53 arbitrary arrests, 31 acts of violence, six media outlets closed or suspended and many days of internet cuts.”

The good news is rapid improvement is possible. Consider Ethiopia. Last year, RSF ranked Ethiopia 150 out of 180 on press freedoms – just four places ahead of DRC. After a peaceful transfer of power in 2018 and the adoption of new reforms, Ethiopia shot up forty places to 110. DRC has the potential to do the same in 2019.

During President Tshisekedi’s recent visit to Washington, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy stated that if 2018 was the year of Ethiopia, 2019 will be the year of the DRC. The United States is committed to doing its part to support President Tshisekedi’s reform agenda and help defend press freedoms throughout DRC. The Voice of America (VOA) recently launched a new Lingala service that has the capacity to reach more than 35 million Congolese. USAID, meanwhile, is spending $19 million to support 76 community radio stations in 16 provinces and five different national languages. The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa has also organized a number of regional workshops where Congolese and American media professionals discussed investigative methodology, source verification and the protection of sources. A recent VOA supported workshop in Lubumbashi for Congolese “citizen journalists” brought together dozens of Congolese for training on media ethics, writing techniques, and interview tactics.

As I have traveled the country, I have sensed hope that the Congo can ascend into its rightful place as a leader on the continent — a strategically important country at peace and prosperous.  I am optimistic and believe this is indeed the year of the DRC and look forward to seeing Congo surpass even Ethiopia on the World Press Freedom ranking.  Next year, let us look back and be proud of what Congo has achieved by allowing the press to be as critical as it needs to be without fear of retribution.