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The Resiliant Heart of the Congo: Pumping for Change Through Journalism

Friday, 31 May 2013

As I pack for tomorrow's departure from this hostile corner of central Africa, I realize I am taking home so much more than I came with.

Not just the trinkets I (gently) haggled for at the street market, my carry-on contains something far more meaningful than the clever small replicas of the wooden bicycles you see everywhere in Goma.

Helene interviews Lisa for her TV show on women's issues in Goma.I leave with some wisdom passed on from the journalists I've worked with this week, from the brave young Congolese reporters who are under a daily threat of violence, who don't miss a day of work even though their pay sometimes doesn't come for months.

Their motivation is pure - they want to be the voice of the weak. They say it and they do it.

Helene hosts a 30 minute show on a Goma TV station. She asked to interview me. We sat on two plastic chairs in a dusty lane walled with lava rocks while Fifi, her colleague, took out her small worn video camera.
There was no easing into this interview. Right out, Helene asked for my message to the rape victims who would be watching. It is common here that after women are raped, they are ostracized by husbands, parents, brothers, sisters and even friends.

Even in Canada, it's difficult for a woman to find the courage to come forward after being raped, but our legal system, in principle, is in place to investigate and penalize rapists. Here, no man seems to get punished. The road to justice is narrow and twisted, particularly, as is so often the case, when the rapists are part of those who are supposed to protect - the police, military, and politicians.

I was told that if a woman's husband upsets the government SHE will be raped as punishment for being the wife. Or, if her husband works for the government and the rebels arrive, SHE will be raped as punishment, again for being the wife. The woman is then a humiliation to her husband and put to the curb. There are so many raped women here that fall into this category it has almost become normal. They are a community within themselves, but have no collective voice.

Helene and the rest of the female press corps are determined to change that. It's why they often work for no pay, it's why they risk their lives to break the silence. The interview continued.

How can women here get out of the prison of religious and tribal traditions they're trapped in? Despite some legal rights such as owning property, gender-equality seems like lip service. The deep roots of this culture still dictate and limit opportunities for women. Helene's interview covered the topic of children born of rape, who are then abandoned. It's beyond tragic.

We also compared the status of women in Canada to women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I could see Fifi's eyebrows arching behind her video camera as I recounted the rights we take for granted in Canada - the fact that I was trained to respectfully question everything I am told by authorities. Even the fact that I drive a car was a curiosity -- in all the thousands of cars, buses and trucks I saw here in Goma and in Kinshasa, I never saw a woman behind the wheel. We did find common ground in the careers we have chosen. To report the news and try to find the truth - although the consequences can be so drastically different for the reporter.

Fifty years of post-colonialism hasn't been long enough to force real change for women. However, as I've said through this blog all week, signs of progress are emerging mostly because of organizations such as Journalists for Human Rights, that tries to train, empower and mobilize reporters.

JHR's work here rests on a fragile base.

The small team with such a big assignment is subject to grants and donations, and according to Freddy Mata, JHR's Country Director, the money runs out in seven months.In fact, now back in Kinshasa, he's packing up the tiny office here on Avenue de la Democratie because they can't afford the rent. The team will work out of Freddy's small house. He lives in a pot-holed street you could not let even your old Toyota near ... and his wall is topped with coiled razor wire. The most common 6 a.m. street sight is neighbourhood children carrying yellow cans of water from the central tap to their homes.

That's grassroots journalism in the heart of one of the world's longest and deadliest conflicts. By some estimates, as many as five million people have been killed here since 1996. For a visitor, like me, who has parachuted in to a place where violence, corruption and rape are rampant, it's actually hard to leave because, despite all the darkness, there is so much light to be found here in the people I've come to know. They want and are working for a better future.

I will come home to the abuse of taxpayer's money in the Canadian Senate and the chaos at Toronto City Hall and be grateful that journalists in our country have the right to expose scandal and get to the truth without risking their lives.

My thanks to Freddy, Papy, Naregh and Rachel at JHR, the CTV News web team (Maurice Cacho who has been my digital saviour) and particularly, to everyone who has followed this journey. I appreciate all of your insightful comments.


This blog was originally posted on ctvnews.ca

Facing the Angry Mob at Camp Mugunga

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

No matter how much advanced planning is done logistically, there is no way to predict what will happen, editorially, when you show up to cover a story - particularly one as fluid as a sprawling refugee camp spilling well beyond its front gate.

Lisa with Esther and Evelyn working on a story.​Today the goal was to "job shadow" five young local reporters through a Journalists for Human Rights project here in Goma, DR Congo.

They had their angles in mind:

  • investigate the soaring number of rape cases in the camp (58 reported in the last four months),

  • probe rumours of "fake refugees" taking advantage of the food distribution program,

  • discover the truth about accusations of severe food shortages in the camp.

Sixteen thousand people live in Camp Mugunga on the outskirts of Goma. It's been here for about a year and is about as close to hell on earth as you could imagine. It's built on the lava rock that spewed across this entire landscape when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted in 2002, destroying three-quarters of the city.

What is it like? 
Imagine a village built on the surface of Mars - in fact, science may show water is more plentiful on the Red Planet than in Camp #3. Imagine sleeping on this jagged ground in a pup tent with at least eight others - for more than a year and with no end in sight. Imagine going for firewood behind a row of tents and getting brutally raped by a man in uniform. Throw in cops that whip crowds of pregnant women jockeying for position in the food line.

Things seemed ok for the first 20 minutes of this assignment. The reporters fanned out and started interviewing refugees. Almost immediately the subject of food shortages turned into a yelling match among the men who gathered to listen in.

It's important to note that we had full authorization from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be there, to take pictures and to conduct interviews. For me that quickly went out the window. A muzungu (a white person) in a crowd of angry, hungry, desperate Congolese and Rwandan refugees, is an obvious target. Everyone believes a visiting "muzungu" can fix problems, find more food and stop the violence. They didn't care that I was a journalist. I was "muzungu." 

One of the camp's local coordinators tried to intervene by shuffling the "muzungu" into a clearing, but within minutes the crowds starting moving en masse into that clearing with lava rocks in hand.

I watched another cop use a stick to beat the crowds back - pregnant women, barefoot children, fist-clenched men. 

About 40 minutes in, JHR Country Director Freddy Mata - who has been a lifeline through this entire journey, a great protector and also a great journalist - looked across the angry crowd at me and said: "It's time to leave. Now."  Accustomed to his mild manner, I knew this directive was urgent.

We made our way through the mobs and into the car that was now surrounded - mostly by children with their hands out, begging for food, money, anything. I hate leaving a story, but in this case, at this camp, it was clear my role as a trainer for JHR was compromised. I didn't want to become the story - no journalist ever does. The muzungu pulled out of the camp and the five local reporters were able to stay.

Hours later we met up for a final session to see what they'd uncovered:

A man admitted he didn't live in the camp, he took the bus in today so he could score some free food on distribution day ("Fake refugees" - tick). They interviewed the woman in charge of sexual violence - it's so rampant there's even an association. She confirmed for them that the rapists are mostly military and since January there have been only a small number of police securing the camp because their pay was cut off. (The UN stopped paying police salaries when they asked the Congolese government to pay the tab - the government refused).They found out that the food rations, initially intended for one person, were now being split between, on average, six people. And instead of a 15-day distribution plan, it's more like 30 days before the next ration is doled out, they were told. I wasn't able to confirm this myself.

The reporters worked well past the city-imposed curfew to write and report their findings. In this city, because rape is more common than robbery, female reporters often sleep in the newsroom to avoid the risk of walking home.It's hard to explain the satisfaction a reporter feels when they've filed a great story that can force change, but I saw it tonight in each one of their faces.

This was a difficult day to see firsthand the reality of life for so many victims of this war, but it was also an incredible day to see these young professionals at work.

I am leaving Goma tomorrow, one of the saddest places on earth. Change here will only come from the people themselves - and these five journalists can be (and I'm sure will be) part of that change.

Back to Kinshasa tomorrow.


This blog was originally posted on ctvnews.ca
Lunch in Goma: Journalists, a bit of Christmas Day, and a table of boozy cops

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Today an image flashed through my mind about pulling up to a Tim Hortons in Canada and seeing a few cops "on the Timmy's beat," armed with a dutchie and a double-double coffee. I realized, as is always the case when you're in a conflict zone, how totally harmless that stereotype really is.

Lisa with journalists in Goma, DRC​At a lunch today with a small group of journalists in Goma, DR Congo, I sat and watched a table full of local police, in full blue uniform, go through beer after beer and bottles of wine.
I took a few pictures surreptitiously to show the reporters I was sitting with. At home, I said, cops drinking on the job would get suspended.

Here in Goma? It's just another brazen example of the abuse of power - and given their track record - a mild one. The consequences, however, of publishing those photos in the Congo would be stark.

"If we put that in [the] paper police will come to your house in the night and shoot you - period," said a local journalist, whose name won`t be published so they don`t get hassled.
Did police have to pay for their liquid lunch? "Never - police don't pay for anything here," said another.

The lunch was free for the journalists also, but this was part of a JHR outreach to the local press corps to generate solidarity.

In this media environment, there is safety in numbers. Usually when a journalist is threatened (or worse) by authorities, it goes unreported.

A united front, they hope, will breed confidence in exposing the widespread abuse and suppression.

The reporters were also given $10 for transportation so they could take part in this week's workshop. A draw in itself considering, on average, they only make $15 a month.

At yesterday's session I met Esther - a smart, young reporter who's already building a reputation for "les scoops" (yes - even in Goma where they speak French and Swahili, an exclusive is called a scoop).

Today over lunch she quietly slid a newspaper in front of me with a front page story carrying her byline. She was modest and proud.

It was the result of a month-long investigation into a stalled road construction project that for months had choked off a main artery in a city that's already a driving disaster.

The story generated so much reaction that within a week of publication, the construction company finally completed the job. That took guts because Esther named names and they were shamed into action.

The lunch ended on a high note: Thanks to the generosity of Canadian electronics retailer The Source, everyone at that table was given a small digital audio recorder.

They were cheering, clapping - even kissing them. Testing one out, a reporter recorded his own voice saying "It's like Christmas" - but they all knew these are not toys, they are tools.

I leaned over to Nicole, another firecracker, and mused about sliding one of the new recorders on to the table of the well-oiled cops.

Too soon...but one day.

Tomorrow, no free lunch. I'm job shadowing five reporters at a refugee camp on the Rwandan border.


This blog was originally posted on ctvnews.ca



Goma's female journalists: their courage to uncover secrets

Monday, 27 May 2013

There are 10 journalists in the world I wish I could get to know better. I would have liked to have had dinner with them, but for security reasons, they had to go. They are women in Goma, DR Congo.

Jounalist Valentine Baeni in Goma​The city is, again, under a curfew imposed after fighting broke out between the M23 rebel army and national troops. This war on the doorstep is off limits for these journalists. Professional suicide.

We met around the same board table that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used three days ago to discuss the faltering peace accord and tomorrow's arrival of a controversial UN Intervention Brigade. It will have the broadest powers in UN history - to ENFORCE peace, not just traditional peacekeeping. In simple terms, they won't need permission from Congo's national army to strike.

The violence unfolding here kicks off our conversation at this workshop, organized by Journalists for Human Rights. For these women, it's an opportunity to share their professional aspirations and personal fears.

Interestingly, the two are intertwined.
They female journalists instinctively want to uncover the best kept-secret in Congo - who leads the mysterious M23 rebels? But the savage tactics used by the militia group make frontline reporting impossible.

No one knows where the frontline is. It's not just a gender issue here. Male reporters have also been unable to infiltrate this marauding army.

I showed a video of conflict I had covered in the past, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My flak jacket is a luxury no one here can afford. It generated a flood of conversation on how few resources exist in this region.

A notebook and a pen, one computer for every five reporters and travelling, even 20 kilometres out of the city, is never approved by the boss because of limited transportation and the cost of gas.

I asked all 10 women why they chose journalism as a career in a place so handcuffed by cultural barriers: half said that the barriers are exactly the reason - they are desperate for change and freedom.

Three of the women said if they didn't, no one else would cover the most vulnerable in their community, the very young and the very old.

One woman - Valentine - said she wanted to "uncover secrets" (and they are endless) and another - a TV presenter - revealed that someone once said she was pretty and had a nice voice. She also admitted she likes the money, most of which comes from "la coupage" - money paid under the table by business owners and politicians in return for favorable coverage. This conversation was so honest and raw, the others around the table just nodded.

They all come from newsrooms where the unwritten code is to not cover anything that provokes the government, and yet it is exactly the brief taste of these types of stories that has made them most proud: exposing conditions at a refugee camp on the edge of town, a rare arts festival that pushed the envelope, and a traffic by-law changed after the story hit the airwaves.

They're pessimistic about change but the fact that these young women are now part of an organized club is change.


This blog was originally posted on ctvnews.ca



Congo's Class Act - Human Rights; from playing the role to living it

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Under a full orange moon in a dilapidated concrete amphitheatre run by the local YMCA, an audience of about 50 people gave a standing ovation to a small group of actors with a big story to tell.

Actors perform the history of DR Congo (Lisa Laflamme) Performers at Kinshasa's Marabout Theatre laid out the history of the Congo. For Africa's third-largest country, it's bleak. There's unpredictable tribal rivalry, a greedy legacy of colonialism, the constant temptation of corruption and a record of sexual violence that is off the charts.

DR Congo is considered the world's largest failed state run by fear, and sadly the bottom line on the stage of this open-air theatre is that not much ever changes here, at least not for the better.

Of the four actors, Julie Sufu was the standout. By day, she's a journalist and JHR trainer, but her first love is acting.

In fact, Julie owes her professional life as a journalist to last night's playwright Ciceron Nzey van Musala. As a young girl, the teacher/author pushed her to stay in school and get a degree - on average, a rarity here.

In just one day I watched her juggle the three facets of her life in this paradoxical place where nothing is a given.

It started at a rundown university in central Kinshasa - ironically called Universite de Bel Campus.

Four young students in fresh white t-shirts stamped - JDH (Journalistes pour les Droits Humaines) were waiting to take us through the corrugated iron gates. Inside is an open dirt courtyard surrounded by rooms, as large as airport hangers.

Each one was packed with students sitting in near darkness, listening to a small voice at the front of the class.

As far as I could tell there are 5,000 students and four main disciplines of study - medicine, law, literature and communication.

One student from each faculty joined us in a narrow dirt floor space that doubled as an office. It was the unofficial meeting of the university's JHR club.

I say unofficial because anything that includes "human rights" in the title makes authorities here nervous and Le Bel Campus is reluctant to sanction the club.

Determined to make a difference, the organization has signed up 30 members. Julie knows the students by name. She and Freddy Mata have cultivated this seed protectively knowing that if anything is going to change here, it has to start with students.

Today is more than just a visit - it's an outreach to the university administration. Naregh Galoustian, the International Programs Manager from Canada, is also here to deliver two suitcase-sized amplifiers and a microphone as a gift to the university. There is an agreement that the school and the JHR club will share them and eventually Le Bel Campus will see clear to officially allowing JHR's existence.

Having wandered through several classes it is obvious that this is a well thought out offering. With no electricity, there are no lights and no audio. You can only hear the professor at the front of the class if you strain your ears.

Operated by a generator, the amps will dramatically change the ability to get the message out. In this case, it's attracting more students to the varied activities JHR offers. Imagine how much noise those two speakers will make.

The students we met identified two main human rights abuses - the cultural barrier for girls to go to school, and bribery.

I was told "there's always room for blackmail here. Whether it's getting into University or getting out with the right marks."

Remember, this is a university with spotty electricity and only a handful of computers, although the administrator wouldn't show them to me because, he said, the office was locked.

With no internet accessibility, the social media road is narrow. Students have a limited way to organize a gathering - again the speakers are the "future-past."

Walking across campus with Julie is another lesson in the power of the media here. She is constantly stopped by students who recognize her work as a journalist for a Kinshasa TV station.

She hosts a news program called "On est Ensemble" (we are together) and it covers everything from politics to culture to women's issues.

In her years as a journalist, handcuffed by a system that shuts down the truth, she defied the rules.

During the last presidential election, rumours were swirling of electoral fraud. Julie and her colleagues tracked down sources and obtained documents to prove it. She found page after page with the same voter's name and an X beside the same candidate. They also found boxes of spoiled ballots.

The story aired during the 3 p.m. news and by 3:10 her phone was ringing with government agents demanding a retraction.

The station stood by her, given the volume of evidence and despite intense intimidation against her, Julie told me the experience didn't scare her, it motivated her.

Two hours after she told me that story, Julie's bravery of a different sort was once again in full view. Singing and dancing through the turbulence of her country's past on an outdoor stage on Avenue de la Victoire.

I'm getting on a 6 a.m. UN flight to Goma - I have no idea if Ban Ki-moon's peace accord is holding because I can't get an internet connection. I guess I'll find out tomorrow.


This blog was originally published on CTV.ca


Touring a newsroom where the writing is a photograph on the wall

Saturday, 25 May 2013

CTV's sprawling studio off Toronto's Highway 401 doesn't have a swimming pool or pet monkeys, we don't have portraits of our Prime Minister on every wall either.

Lobby of Tele 50 TV Station (Lisa LaFlamme) At the largest television network in DR Congo all of these things are in full view, the proud trappings of a fledgling enterprise called Tele Cinquante. It went on the air in 2010 in honour of the 50th anniversary of the country's independence from Belgium, and to say it's "close to the government" is an understatement.

At first, according to the people I spoke to, it was the only news outlet that didn't demand money from politicians to cover their agenda - that didn't last long.

Within months, politicians who "wanted to hear their own voices" on this modern new channel started "motivating" journalists with cash payments.

When I asked whether this was common knowledge, my question was met with a laugh and "ca c'est le Congo."

After all, I was told, even garden variety news conferences helped defray the cost of buying new equipment or paying rent.

The president and founder of the channel ushered me and a small group of JHR staffers into his opulent office. It had magnificent chairs covered in some exotic pelt. The lights were optic fibre elephant tusks and there were blown up photographs of he and President Kabila covering the walls.

JMK, as everyone calls him, is the very personification of the African "Big Man" - dressed impeccably in a beautifully tailored colourful silk chemise and fine leather shoes.

Turns out his office was about four times the size of their newsroom, which he escorted us through.

No fine leather here. It was a barebones, plastic-chaired room with a handful of desks, a few laptops, and a handwritten assignment board. The channel does have top-of-the-line HD cameras and editing equipment along with a modern control room.

The network has more than a hundred reporters across the country and within only three years, has more than 12 million viewers (Total population: 70 million).

It's a 24-hour TV station with a constantly-changing news crawl, and broadcasts not only in French but also in four of the many other languages spoken in this country.

Tele Cinquante was only one of several TV and radio stations I saw today. The only independent was Radio Okapi - safe behind the barbed-wire walls of a UN base, funded in partnership with a Swiss foundation - Hirondel - focused on media peace building projects.

It also has a nationwide reach but it may also have a shelf life. Radio Okapi was established after the war when President Kabila was appointed in 2003 but the news managers worry that as soon as the UN pulls back on this mission, the radio station will need a buyer and here the sale comes at the cost of an independent voice.

I'm off now to see JHR staffer and journalist, Julie Sufu, perform in a local theatre production tonight. She has her own brilliant and brave story of life as a journalist here, which I will share in another blog.

- Lisa

This blog was originally published on CTV.ca

Friday Night in the Congo with Rob Ford on the Wireless

Friday, 24 May 2013

The airport arrival in Kinshasa went smoothly enough -- a 15-minute grilling by the immigration officer when he saw my visa stamped "journalist”: what was I doing here, who did I work for, where was I staying? With a lineup forming behind me, he eventually nodded me through.

Freddy Mata, JHR DR Congo Country Director (Lisa LaFlamme) Baggage claim was a different story -- well over an hour to see my luggage emerge but it offered plenty of time to watch the chaos around the jammed conveyor belt and, curiously, count the posters for Blackberry -- 22 that I could see -- obviously the Waterloo-based company's ambitions for this emerging market are current and real.

Out of the airport, Freddy Mata and Papy Angonge from JHR DR Congo were waiting patiently behind a full police barrier. I asked if I could take a photo and Freddy said not here, then Fbut he meant it.

The last time I saw Freddy he was being honoured at a JHR gala in Toronto for his extraordinary work writing about the lives of the most vulnerable here in DR Congo -- that includes just about everyone outside the political elite. He's a brave man.

Through the congested streets of Kinshasa, packed with pedestrians, motorcycles, overcrowded minivans and stuttering cars, we crawled through traffic for over an hour and made our way to the local JHR office, wonderfully located on Avenue de la Democratie -- it is literally at a crossroad.

For a city with over a hundred daily papers (most of them come and go like mushrooms) and dozens of radio and TV stations, there is little to no freedom for journalists.

Freddy gave me a quick overview of the way stories are filed and news conferences are covered --  money almost always changes hands and whichever politician is paying for the story, gets to read it BEFORE it ends up in the paper or on air.

The current flare up of violence in Goma is not being covered by one single domestic news outlet. There is no "appetite" in the government to see the daily bloodshed splashed over the airwaves.

On the drive, I received an email saying that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was about to hold a news conference after 8 days of silence. My colleague Phil Hahn held the phone up to the television in the CTV newsroom so I could listen in. Hearing Ford in a car in the Congo was a strange experience. It exposed so clearly the differences between our two cultures.

Freddy loved eavesdropping on this long distance, real time, press conference and shook his head at the idea that a story like this could ever be broadcast or published here.

It will be a long road before journalists in DR Congo can safely cover the corruption that has choked and isolated this country for so many decades.

Tomorrow we're going to the largest "private" TV station in Kinshasa -- heavily funded by a "friend" of the president. It should be interesting to get a first-hand view of how they do a newscast.

More tomorrow.


This blog was originally published on CTV.ca


Wheels up to the Democratic Republic of Congo: Why am I going?

22 May, 2013

This Thursday I’m headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo with Canadian based Journalists for Human Rights, a remarkable organization that supports and trains journalists who are working in some of the world’s most difficult conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The agency has spent more than a decade helping local journalists overcome significant obstacles -- from a lack of basic resources to government intimidation and corruption -- to report their stories safely and fairly.

These reporters, editors, producers and photographers have never known what it’s like to work in the kind of free press environment we enjoy here in Canada. For a story like the Senate housing expenses scandal, our own Bob Fife (@robertfife) can dig up those crucially important details day after day without fearing for his life. In the DRC and many other places around the world, journalists who question authority can end up in jail, or deadIn the DRC, journalists, in fact all citizens must work and live in some of the most dire conditions on earth. On the 2011 Human Development Index, the DRC ranked last -- 187th out of 187. It’s a place where average life expectancy is just 56 years, the literacy rate is 67 per cent (57 per cent for females), and where 71 per cent of people live below the poverty line.

During my 10 days in the DRC, I will be meeting with local journalists in Kinshasa and Goma, particularly women, for an exchange of experiences - inspiration and learning that will go both ways.

I'll be job shadowing, so to speak, on a number of stories and see first hand the obstacles these brave young reporters face.

This trip is important to me because when journalists are threatened and bullied, anywhere, it is personal for all of us. You can't have democracy without a free press and you can't have a free press without democracy.

I know I will be meeting some remarkable people during my travels and plan on posting blogs, photographs and videos so that I can share their stories with you. (Fingers crossed I can find an internet connection!)

As always I'd love your feedback.


This blog was originally published on CTV.ca



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