You are here

PeaceTalks: Threats to independent journalism as the DRC heads towards its next elections

“It's not a Canada problem or a Congo problem, it’s a humanity problem.” - Babaluku, Congolese Rapper & Rights Activist

Though widely underreported, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is in the middle of a political crisis.

On 23 December 2018, the DRC will hold its next presidential and parliamentary elections. The Congolese people will determine a successor to President Joseph Kabila, the incumbent since 2001. Tensions are high: in the last decade, Africa has faced an alarming trend of presidential term limit extensions, leading to political violence all across the region.

For Kabila, his second and final presidential term was slated to expire at the end of 2016. Kabila promised to hold elections by the end of 2017 — a broken promise as elections are only now happening this month.

Congolese citizens await the change of government with anticipation and optimism, but the elections also bring a sense of fear. The DRC hasn’t experienced a peaceful power transition since 1960. Recently, violent clashes between government and rebel forces are becoming increasingly common, spilling into the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, affecting a growing number of civilian populations. Attacks on local villages have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, displacing thousands to other cities within the DRC, and across the border into neighbouring Uganda.

On October 24th, PeaceGeeks hosted our 40th PeaceTalk at the HiVE coworking space in downtown Vancouver in collaboration with the SFU African Students' Association and Bunia Actualité, an independent news organization operating in the DRC.

The talk, titled Intersection of Independent Journalism and Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, brought a closer look to the challenges and opportunities facing the DRC and independent journalists.

The talk featured Don Wright, Amnesty International’s National Outreach and Coordination Manager, King Solomon, a refugee and student at Simon Fraser University who helped found Bunia Actualité, Babaluku, a Ugandan rapper and community youth activist and social entrepreneur, and Luc Malembe, journalist and Director of Bunia Actualité, who teleconferenced in from the DRC. The talk was moderated by Peter Wood of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Don Wright opened the dialogue with an overview of Amnesty International’s work responding to violence faced by journalists around the world, highlighting that professional foreign press and local agents alike are, in many regions around the globe, being “cracked down upon,” facing threats of imprisonment, and in some cases, even death.

Wright also highlighted the role Canada and its mining companies play in social conflicts in the DRC. Canada’s interests and holdings in the region include $40 million USD in annual imports, and $4.5 billion USD in mining-related assets. Wright added that many locals in the rural regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are regularly jailed -- or killed --  for attempting to protect their home environment from Canadian mining companies.

King Solomon, who emigrated as a refugee from the DRC to Canada in 2009, spoke to his personal experiences with the socio-economic and political crises. His testimony was emotional as he expressed the shame he felt at running away from the place he had called home his whole life.

Solomon helped to establish the website buniaactualite.com, one of the few independent news organizations in the DRC. Since its conception in October 2017, the grassroots news organization Bunia Actualité has gained significant traction both on its website and its initial Facebook page (started in 2015) which has over 111,000 followers.

Using an interactive online map, Reporters without Borders, which ranks the level of freedom of the press in countries across the globe, Solomon pointed out the vast instability and restrictions against free journalism in the world, and especially in post-colonial regions that continue to experience conflict.

Malembe, a well-known political commentator in the DRC, called in via teleconference to share his personal account of being imprisoned and threatened on several occasions for writing openly. Malembe was jailed for a month in the city of Bunia’s central prison in December 2017 for participating in a protest against the President.

“Today, [the DRC] is one of the most repressed countries for journalism in Africa,” Malembe said. Along with directing Bunia Actualité, Malembe also founded one of the largest civil rights movements in the DRC, called LUCHA, which translates in English to “Fight for Change.”

Malembe noted that the introduction of technology and online forums have allowed for independent journalism in the DRC because writers are no longer tied to offices that can be physically targeted. But efforts to control and repress these outlets have increased as well.

More than 150,000 citizens rely on the internet to learn about what is happening in their region. However, with lack of access to modern equipment, citizens face many technological barriers. Malembe called for action from Canadians to help overcome and solve these obstacles in order to help bring to an end the constant state of violence and war.

Babaluku, rapper and Founder of the Bavubaka Foundation, highlighted the importance of language, art, and music in connecting and mobilizing citizens, especially youth, to become advocates for peace within their communities. The Bavubaka Foundation is a Ugandan organization committed to restoring hope and healing in communities, using music and the arts to empower a new generation of  leaders in Uganda and all of Africa to use their voices to affect positive social change.

Reflecting on his work with youth, Babaluku discussed one of the biggest challenges he faces, that many do not see the significance of their efforts and do not believe they can contribute even within their personal communities, let alone globally. Their feeling of invisibility and powerlessness discourages their involvement in art and design, which Babaluku believes is key to overcoming crisis and violence. He emphasized that it is the artists, designers, and musicians leading the conversation for change.

A Ugandan-Canadian, Babaluku underlined that these political and humanitarian crises are global and borderless issues. “It’s not a Canada, problem or a Congo problem, it’s a humanity problem,” he stated. He did add that, as Canadians, we need to take responsibility for creating solutions and helping vulnerable communities, especially encouraging youth to realize their potential. Babaluku touched on the much-needed support from global allies to find a realistic and beneficial position within their foreign affairs policies to assist with tackling human rights crises.

The questions central to the DRC situation are also increasingly relevant here in North America:

What does it take to ensure an honest and fair election in a country strife with corruption, exploitation, and armed conflict? Can elevating the voices of independent journalists foster transparency and open dialogue, or simply increase polarization in an already divided nation?

The panelists left the audience with a the following action items:

  1. Spread the word. What’s going on in the DRC, whether it’s the upcoming elections or the intensive Canadian mining operations in the Congo, is not widely considered on the Canadian or global stages.
  2. Contact members of parliament to hire an ombudsperson to look into and raise awareness of the impacts of Canadian mining companies abroad.
  3. Donate to bridge the digital divide. Organizations like Bunia Actualité are looking for more resources, such as equipment and capacity, and support to sustain independent journalism. Learn how you can donate your old smartphone to equip local independent journalists to effectively report what’s happening on the ground in the DRC at www.cellsforchange.com.
  4. Watch this video by Yole!Africa: https://vimeo.com/288555974, shared by Babaluku at the talk. Yole!Africa is a cultural centre for youth in the DRC started by internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and activist Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, in order to provide alternative education opportunities and empower youth to thrive and promote peace in spite of conflict in the region.
  5. Engage youth here at home. Seek opportunities in your communities to teach and share your passions with youth to help them become community builders.

Kiara Scott is a PeaceGeeks volunteer and contributing writer.

Dec 12, 2018
Category: Thematic Issues