Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Journalists walk with death: media freedom in the DRC

Bob Bofoka, a journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has survived the suffocating media milieu from Kinshasa to Cape Town, South Africa. His story is one of many demonstrating the tango journalists must dance between politics and media freedom in one of the most oppressive media landscapes in Africa.

On 15 March 2015 activists, journalists and diplomats gathered in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to participate in a pro-democracy march. It was organised by Filimbi, meaning whistle-blowers, a partially US-funded movement that encourages youth to actively engage in politics. In an overtly undemocratic fashion, thirty of the participants were forcibly detained and pictures were aggressively deleted from cameras and phones by police. Six of those detained were journalists. While four foreign reporters were later released, two Congolese journalists are reportedly still in custody.

Although NGOs such as Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders were quick to publicly condemn the suffocating environment for media freedom in the country, this is not a particularly uncommon event for one of the most war-torn countries in Africa.

They taught us the dangers of journalism in school, but I wanted to pursue it anyway

For Bob Bofoka, a freelance broadcast journalist that fled Kinshasa for Cape Town, South Africa, this event is emblematic of his career slogan, ‘Journalists walk with death.’

He does not claim he went into this career blindly. “They taught us the dangers of journalism in school,” he says. “But I wanted to pursue it anyway.”

Bofoka’s obvious, foolhardy confidence is channeled through a gruff, animated voice that rattles off stories, anecdotes and life philosophies with unlimited generosity.

Armed with this voice, a camera and a microphone, Bofoka (known by many as Bobo News) has gained a reputation for sending ripples, and occasionally waves, through the Congolese communities, in Kinshasa, Harare and now in Cape Town. He has been using these tools for the last twelve years.

Journalists working in the DRC- and in particular local journalists, face a number of challenges, from threats and intimidation, to the confiscation of equipment, to violent attacks

“I will film and either upload onto YouTube, or sell my interviews to media agencies,” he explains. He also burns his videos onto DVDs and sells them to the interested Congolese community members. “I have quite a name for myself now. I haven’t had to pay for a haircut since 2004,” he laughs.

But Bofoka’s fame was born from a tumultuous journey through the African media milieu, through Zambia, Zimbabwe and finally South Africa. “I had to flee DRC after I was threatened by Kabila’s army for the interviews I was doing. But I never give my opinion in the interviews, as a journalist you need to remain neutral. I would just try to talk to both sides.”

His intentions were not always what counted. “In Zimbabwe I was arrested for six months. I was interviewing Congolese in Zimbabwe, asking how they are able to survive under a dictator like Mugabe. The police did not like that. But one good thing came out of prison,” he says. “This English you are hearing now, I learnt almost every word inside there.”

Media lockdown

Bofoka’s tenacity to continue producing media content in such hostile environments bears testimony to his commitment to the profession, which has cost him his freedom and safety on multiple occasions. Unfortunately,once again, these threats are not unique to Bobo News.

“Journalists working in the DRC- and in particular local journalists, face a number of challenges, from threats and intimidation, to the confiscation of equipment, to violent attacks. Government crackdowns have also increased in the past few months, likely in anticipation of the 2016 elections,” says Kerry Paterson, Africa Research Associate from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

When you are a Congolese that has left DRC because you disapprove of Kabila, you are known as a combatant. If you are a Kabila supporter, you are known as a koloba. I have been beaten up for being accused of identifying as both.

Paterson is referring to the lockdown on internet access and SMS service for mobile phones throughout the country at the beginning of this year. She is referring to the death of Soleil Balanga, a journalist who was found with his throat slit as he was leaving the community radio station where he worked. She is referring to the continued detention of the broadcast reporter Erick Izami, one of the local journalists arrested for covering the pro-democracy protests.

The pervading threat of President Kabila’s amendment of the constitution to allow for his “constitutional” re-election for a third term, has sent tremors through Congolese communities both in the country and the diaspora. Some Congolese are accusing him of plotting a constitutional coup.

“When you are a Congolese that has left DRC because you disapprove of Kabila, you are known as a combatant,” explains Bofoka. “If you are a Kabila supporter, you are known as a koloba. I have been beaten up for being accused of identifying as both.”

Bofoka recounts with vivid memory being pepper sprayed in the eyes, stripped of his clothing, beaten with a baseball bat and put in the boot of a car for his alleged political affiliations.

From DRC to SA

Despite the tumultuous treatment by other Congolese living in South Africa (on either side of the political spectrum), Bofoka vehemently insists South Africa is a better place to be a journalist.

“When I first arrived in South Africa in 2003, I was a security guard for one year. But as soon as I had saved enough money I bought a video camera and microphone to continue doing what I love. Of course it is still a risky job,” he admits, “but South Africa has a lot of media freedom compared to back home.”

Believe me, coupage is better than a journalist’s salary

According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 Freedom Index, the DRC is ranked 107 out of 178 countries, whereas South Africa is ranked 39. From 2006 until 2012, eight Congolese journalists were killed, 63 incarcerated, 253 detained and 108 assaulted, according to the media monitoring organisation Journaliste en Danger (JED).

In the face of such daily threats, many Congolese journalists have embraced the culture of coupage, literally meaning cutting. This is the term used when journalists are paid to cover specific stories in specific ways. Undeniably, this “norm” is a pervasive termite in the fabric of media freedom and objectivity in the country and the continent alike.

“Often this is used by political players,” says Bobo. “Believe me, coupage is better than a journalist’s salary.” According to the World Development Indicators, 63.6% of the population are living below the poverty line, making the appeal of coupage to a struggling journalists easier to understand.

And yet Africa Renewal magazine, produced by the Africa Section of the United Nations Department of Public Information, has written about the survival of ethical journalism in the DRC media battlefield. Radio Okapi, established by United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, attempts to tackle the culture of coupage through extensive journalism ethics training and well paid salaries. Equal airtime for all political parties, the chairing of debates and thorough journalistic analysis means Radio Okapi is setting new trends in DRC’s media landscape. Despite this, two of the eight reporters assassinated since 2005 worked for Radio Okapi.

In light of the risks taken by journalists in the DRC every day, the toss-up between journalistic ethics and one’s own life becomes a real and raw wager. Those, like Bobo Bofoka, that do make the decision, end up nomadic, beaten, threatened and/or imprisoned. It is these personal accounts that undeniably stress the fact: journalism ethics cannot be viewed in isolation from the political context in which they are expected to survive. Indeed, in this context, journalism and politics live in a strange symbiosis, each challenging and repressing the other in the pursuit of ultimate success. Unjustly, it will be the lives of the brave few that will be sacrificed with the hope that their memory lives on in the future fruits of their labour: a free and fair press for all.

This article is a response to the topic idea; Justice for journalists – the heroes and heroines under attack for informing the public.

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