Attacks on the media continue to increase in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the M23 rebels have been fighting against the army in the eastern part of the country. Media advocacy groups express concern over the arrests of journalists and censorship of the press, both of which have increased over the past year. Media Monitoring Africa said press freedom in general is under attack in countries where there is continued instability.
William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, said the attacks on press freedom in the DRC are a major concern, because there are more and reports of such instances occurring.
“For example, we were doing some work in some of the bordering countries in Burundi and Uganda a few months ago, and things were a lot more stable, and certainly the views we were getting then from our colleagues in the journalism area there were that things weren’t nearly as bad then as they are now, and that was only at the start of this year. So in a few short months, we’ve seen a fairly rapid deterioration of media freedom and the impact on media in the DRC.”
According to reports, media attacks on journalists and on press institutions occur in various forms, from arrests, to personal attacks, to the ransacking of press buildings.
“Well, we know about some of the journalists that have been personally attacked and harassed. We’ve also seen it against particular media institutions. But, I also think that some of it is about using more of a kind of structured means of simply preventing institutions from using their medium to either broadcast or produce their papers,” explained Bird, who added that he does foresee these types of attacks continuing as long as instability continues.
“It seems to be a fairly consistent theme to go and target media, and not only within the DRC. We saw that more recently in the Middle East, that the media was a formal target of military intervention, so I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t see something similar within the DRC," he said.
Bird described how the continued attacks take their toll on the media’s ability to perform its job.
"Well, obviously they’re fairly devastating to the extent that it’s no longer a question of being able to say certain things and being biased, it’s about simply being able to perform their fundamental duties. So clearly it has a very negative impact not only in the DRC, but also in the surrounding countries. We know that in Uganda, for example, their media freedom is also under severe threat," he said.
Bird pointed out that in many cases the government accuses the media of being biased, and therefore feels its means are just in going after them.
“They justify it in terms of issues around insults, around defamation," he said. "They accuse radio stations of sowing division, of fostering violence. So it’s something that makes the lines quite blurred. It’s not as though they admit to doing this as a means of preventing the media from doing their job, they usually try and put a very negative spin on it, and say these journalist were arrested because they are guilty of sedition, or they are accused of insulting people, unnecessarily of spreading hatred.”
Bird also emphasized that people are sometimes left not knowing what to expect from either side. However, he emphasized what they do know in many parts of Africa is who is telling the truth, because either the media or the governments may present only one side of a story, and that side does not add up to what people are actually experiencing.