Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke visits DR Congo with jhr – and discovers just how tough journalists there have to be
The streets of Kinshasa resemble a lunar landscape spliced with a Hieronymous Bosch painting of hell. There’s no sidewalks, no public transit, no traffic lights, not even rules of the road. (In Kinshasa, if you’re fed up with being stuck in traffic, you simply drive into the opposing lane and zoom down it as fast as possible.)
The dominant note is chaos. Piles of garbage burn everywhere because there is no garbage collection, casting a toxic soup of plastic and ash over the city. Unpaid military police toting Cold-War-era AK-47s alternately direct traffic and prey on the population for petty cash. Stop too long at an intersection, and you’re liable to drive off with starving street urchins stuck to the back of the car, trying frantically to get an arm in the window to pinch anything that could be converted into cash.
This is the environment in which Journalists for Human Rights operates one of its toughest yet arguably most essential programs: the Democratic Republic of Congo.
From July 7 to July 16, I headed to the DRC to oversee a transition from one country director to another. I was lucky enough to have the editor of the Toronto Star, Michael Cooke, along for the ride. Cooke is interested in media development and fascinated by the history of the Congo. He wanted to get a sense of the kinds of challenges that journalists there face, first-hand.
The DRC did not disappoint.
A fledgling democracy with an ostensibly free press, the DRC is struggling to emerge from a long history of brutal exploitation. It’s where King Leopold of Belgium took control of an area the size of France and Germany combined, and built an empire on forced labour (while never bothering to visit). It’s where writer Joseph Conrad set Heart of Darkness, a novel-length investigation into the darker corners of the human psyche. It’s where twentieth-century despot Mobutu Sese Seko told the population to “steal a little,” because they were unlikely to be paid enough through legal means, thus institutionalizing a kleptocracy. And it is currently six spots away from bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, which makes it one of the world’s worst countries in which to do business.
jhr has operated an office in the DRC over the past two and a half years. The organization has trained hundreds of journalists in Kinshasa, Goma, Bukavu and elsewhere across the country, promoting a form of journalism that highlights human rights issues and abuses and holds authorities to account. Throughout that time, the following question has come up repeatedly for our trainers: in practicing a journalism of integrity, are you not afraid for your life?
We were soon to discover where that sentiment of fear came from.
Cooke and I arrived in the DRC mid-morning on July 7. After navigating a cordon of military police to locate our driver, Papy Tondo Angonge, we were then detained en route from the airport by two traffic policemen-turned-extortion artists toting ancient machine guns. They looked like they hadn’t eaten in days (and likely hadn’t been paid in longer). Luckily, Papy has a contact at the Presidential Palace who comes in handy for precisely these kinds of situations. A few phone calls later, we were released and headed to the hotel.
Thus initiated into the delights of arbitrary authority, Congolais-style, we were ready to embark on a two-day tour of media outlets.
The first meeting was with Andre Ipakala, the editor-in-chief of La Reference Plus, one of many small newspapers that dot Kinshasa’s media landscape. A tiny office with a dirt floor housed several staffers working at old computers. A room off an adjacent courtyard held an ancient printing press. The editor told stories of trying to stay financially afloat in an environment where there is minimal advertising. More chilling was Ipakala’s tale of the time when one of his reporters disappeared from the office after a long day, never to be seen again. (Files from an investigation the reporter was conducting later turned up in the car of a cabinet minister.)
This was just the first of many such anecdotes. We heard stories of painstakingly reported human rights features that didn’t go anywhere because publishing them does not result in a ‘coupage’ – an envelope of cash given out at press conferences in order to ensure a press release is published verbatim. Then there was the explanation of the ten ways in which journalists can expect to be sanctioned by their press union, versus the one incident where the union championed journalists’ rights. The editor of Le Potential, a broadcasting and print media group, talked of losing advertising because the organization’s coverage is deemed by advertisers to be too political. Overhanging every conversation was human rights activist Floribert Chebeya’s recent death in mysterious circumstances, just prior to the country’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations on June 30th.
Thus briefed, Mr. Cooke conducted four days of workshops on the role of the press in a functioning democracy, drawing from his experiences editing the Star, the Chicago Sun-Times, and a variety of other newspapers. The point was not to raise unrealistic expectations of what is currently feasible in the DRC, but rather to talk about how a robust form of journalism and investigative reporting can and does work elsewhere, and show how an empowered press can help build a well-functioning democracy. The ultimate goal was to give Congolese journalists a clear understanding of what might be possible in the future.
Mr. Cooke spoke in detail about a series of investigative reports the Star has conducted in recent years into racial profiling by the police, as well as the role the paper has played exposing political corruption in Canada. He showed slides of how each story ran, and answered questions about how journalists gain access to the kinds of sources needed to publish stories that can bring down cabinet ministers, remove politicians from campaigns, and otherwise hold those in power in a democracy to account. He also talked about the importance of having a single press association, like the Canadian Association of Journalists, that functions as a lobby group and helps shore up the power of the press. And he did his best to field the inevitable question: How can journalists in the DRC hope to publish this kind of journalism – without fear?
When asked about the journalists he met Cooke’s responded with “I don’t know how these journalists in those newsrooms do their work when there’s an omnipresent scary ‘bad guy’ looking over their shoulder. It takes commitment and courage and … smarts.”
To round out the program, then- country director Emily Jacquard spoke about definitions of human rights and the value to a democracy of a robust form of journalism that highlights human rights issues. She pointed out that working as a journalist in the DRC is not nearly as dangerous as working in Sudan or Iran, where there is no free press. And she spoke about strategies to report stories that address rights abuses without inciting severe reprisals from authorities: pieces about the difficulties domestic workers face, for example, or the unsanitary conditions in which food is sold in the markets. By highlighting these problems, she explained, journalists can indicate where responsible governments can and should step in to regulate the issues and provide solutions – without inciting death threats.
Some might wonder what, if anything, an organization like jhr can accomplish in such an atmosphere of fear. Yet over the course of the week, many doubts were put to rest. Our new Congolese country director, Freddy Mata, and student coordinator Eugene Kalongo did a great job coordinating and promoting the workshops. In total, Mr. Cooke, Ms. Jacquard, senior trainer Andre St. Pierre and I spoke to approximately 350 journalists, journalism students, editors, broadcasters and publishers. Those attending included television journalist Georges Bakagwa, who had come all the way from Goma for the program, Doudou Enegi of local paper L’Avenir and Armand Buka of TopCongo FM, a radio station that broadcasts nationwide.
As a result of the training, Bakagwa produced a short TV feature on unsanitary conditions in open air markets, and indicated the municipal government needed to step in and regulate the situation. Buka produced a radio piece on sexual harassment in the workplace. Enegi produced an item on teen pregnancy and its impact: that young girls leave school early in order to start selling cheap goods in Kinshasa’s Marche-Centrale, so that can pay for their children’s welfare.
After watching the impressive series of rights-media radio and TV features produced by JHR-trained journalists, I asked Buka of TopCongo FM what he’d gained from JHR’s training. “It encourages journalists to focus their attention on the problems that exist in their society,” he said. “It’s important because it’s necessary for people to understand their rights in order to assert them.”
“The country we live in – human rights are not a priority for those who run it,” Buka went on. “Journalists can, by their work, show people the gaps between what should be done and what is being done – and in so doing, start helping to bridge them.”
The grande finale of the week came right at the end of our time in the DRC, at a gathering at Kinshasa’s Centre Fatima, a local college. We walked into a hall crammed with journalists, journalism and law students, all keen to hear Mr. Cooke’s presentation. As more piled in, organizers decided to move our group from that room to the main auditorium. Some responses remained the same: how to manage fears of reprisal, how to conduct investigations in the absence of adequate financial support. But other questions were inspiring. “What’s the best way to build a free press?” asked one journalism student. “How do you establish a thriving democracy?” demanded another. “What needs to be done so journalists can practice their craft without fear?”
As I talked afterwards to the student chapter presidents and the journalists present, to Henry Mbuyi of the University of Kinshasa, who pairs his studies with work on a TV show, and Eugene Kalongo, the student coordinator extraordinaire who carries a photograph of Obama around in his cellphone, I sensed real hope in the room. This is the future intelligentsia of this country. This group isn’t just going to roll over and let the killer combination of cynicism and poverty do its dirty work on their integrity. Instead, they are going to make things change.
The takeaway for a media development organization is clear. Rather than getting depressed about a situation created by centuries of criminal mismanagement, now is the time to do everything possible to support these courageous people as they work towards a better future. A stronger press is a critical element towards achieving that goal – particularly when going into an election year. And that is why jhr will continue its work in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rachel Pulfer is jhr’s International Programs Director