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18.05.2007 General News

Democracy challenges the press in Africa

By .

Since its founding in 1998, the non-governmental watchdog group Journaliste en danger has won international recognition for its tenacious defence of press freedom in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But when inflammatory reporting fuelled political violence in the capital, Kinshasa, in August 2006, threatening elections, the JED found itself in the unusual position of calling for stronger control of abuses by the media by the official regulatory agency, along with more aggressive enforcement of ethics standards by professional media bodies.

Within a week of the violence, the rights group convened a meeting of the country's main journalists" associations and media houses to demand an end to biased coverage of political events, even-handed enforcement of media laws by the official Haute authorité des média and the relaunch of an industry-wide "tribunal of peers" to monitor compliance with standards of accuracy and fairness.

In a post-election analysis of media coverage during the campaign, the JED found that some newspaper, radio and television outlets were acting as a "propaganda press committed to defending the political interests of its own candidates and demonising its political adversaries," in a country where many private media companies are owned by candidates and political parties.

"Worst of all," the report charged, "state-owned radio and television stations took part in the general decline by siding almost exclusively" with the president's party.

Media's role vital

The stakes in the DRC were high. The 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda had touched off more than a decade of both internal conflict and external intervention in the DRC (formerly Zaire). Estimates of the number of deaths caused by violence, disease and the collapse of basic services run as high as 4 million.

A fragile peace agreement was signed in 2002 and opened the way for the largest UN peacekeeping operation in history, the UN Organisation Mission in the DRC, which has nearly 20,000 international soldiers and civilians.

Despite the UN presence, ethnic conflict continued in the eastern part of the country, and the election period itself was marred by clashes between supporters of the incumbent, President Joseph Kabila, and those of a former rebel leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Many saw the role of the media as vital to the success of the transitional period that began after the signing of the December 2002 accord. In a resolution adopted earlier that year at protracted peace talks known as the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, the warring parties declared that "independent, free, responsible and efficient media are a guarantee for public freedoms, the smooth running of democracy and social cohesion."

During the election campaign, they noted, the media would be essential in helping voters "gain insight into the profiles of public figures and politicians, as well as into their programmes. . . . This enables the public to express itself credibly during electoral and consultative events."

The media were especially important in a country the size of Western Europe with few roads and railways, 1.5 million people uprooted from their homes by violence and no experience of political pluralism or elections.

The large distances and high cost of travel, weak and poorly financed political parties and the continuing presence of armed, partisan militias in some areas meant that traditional campaigning by candidates and party officials would be limited. That placed an even greater burden on the media as the main vehicle for voter education and political campaigning.

Freedom of expression and the press, largely unknown during the dictatorial 30-year rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, was entrenched in the transition constitution. Oversight and regulation of the media was entrusted to the HAM, an official body composed of all parties in the transitional unity government and headed by a respected journalist and award-winning rights campaigner, Mr. Modeste Mutinga.

'Irresponsible reporting'

Training increased in an effort to prepare the Congolese media for its new role as an instrument of democracy. The JED and the other media organisations sponsored many briefings and seminars for reporters, broadcasters and editors on the elections and the media's ethical and professional obligations.

But in the end, noted Julia Crawford, Africa director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, "while some media in the DRC have played an important role" in the process, "there were a lot of problems and a lot of irresponsible reporting

Many of the worst abuses seemed to occur at moments of crisis. During heavy fighting between ethnic militias in the eastern town of Bunia in 2003, JED President Donat M'baya Tshimanga reported, the Congolese media generated extensive coverage of the violence, but without sending reporters to the scene. "The media — and they may not even be aware of it — serve as a platform for the warlords, who use the rivalry between different ethnic groups in Bunia and the DRC only for their own profit. . . . The hate speeches of the conflict would not have had the same effect if the media had not agreed to play the role of mouthpiece" for the opposing sides.

Nor was the official media oversight body, the HAM, immune to criticism. In its post-election analysis of the media, the JED charged that "the struggle against incitement to hatred and violence, while noble in principle, has allowed the media regulator to exercise systematic censorship of the privately owned media, while the state-owned media has been usurped by the ruling party." Overall, concluded the JED, "a large number of Congolese media failed to live up to their role."

Part of the explanation is financial, said Claude Kabemba, a media analyst for the South African Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. Few of the country's nearly 3,000 trained journalists earn a living wage.

Instead, journalists are paid to write stories by the individuals or organisations they are covering — a practice known as le coupage (literally, "blending"). "Most journalists go around searching not for news but for people who can pay them to publish their stories," "The DRC…needs to be protected by a truly democratic state. . . . The media holds the crucial key in promoting the culture of democracy and good governance, but it needs the necessary support to play its role efficiently and correctly."

Micheal Fleshman, United Nations