Habari RDC: The only thing certain about the upcoming Congolese election is uncertainty


Guy Muyembe of the Digital Activism Award-winning Habari RDC at the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

Guy Muyembe of the Digital Activism Award-winning Habari RDC at the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

The Democratic Republic of Congo will go to the polls on 23 December to elect a successor to incumbent president Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since January 2001 when he inherited the position from his assassinated father. The election was originally scheduled for 27 November 2016, a delay that has caused many problems for the country.

“The only thing that is certain about the election is the uncertainty that comes with it,” Guy Muyembe, president of Habari RDC, the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award Fellow for Digital Activism, tells Index. “Will it take place, will it not take place? How transparent will it be? In all likelihood, not very. And will the result tear the country apart?”

Launched in 2016, Habari RDC is a collective of more than 100 young Congolese bloggers and web activists who give voice to the opinions of young people from all over the Democratic Republic of Congo. In recent months, they have been working towards covering what could be the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.

“But in the end, it will most likely be the same people in power,” Muyembe says. “As for Kabila himself, if he remains in the country, he might be operating from the shadows. This is definitely not a reassuring prospect.”

This is a tense time for the DRC. The UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern at violence against opposition rallies around the country in the run-up to the election. Bachelet called on the authorities to ensure “the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – essential conditions for credible elections – are fully protected”. Muyembe is also concerned about what all this means for those running in opposition to the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy: “They’re taking part in the campaign, but will they actually take part in the election in the end?”

During this period the risk factor for activists has been very high, Muyembe says. “They’re not protected legally, and it’s very easy to label them spies or start a crackdown against them.” The prospects for a free press in the country don’t look any better. Peter Tiani, a journalist for Le Vrai Journal, was arrested in November and faces a one-year jail term on defamation charges for reporting that a large sum of money was stolen from the home of Bruno Tshibala, the country’s prime minister. Tiani became a target because he reported on the second most powerful man in the DRC, Muyembe says.

“Even journalists who don’t explicitly view the government in a favourable way — those who aren’t necessarily negative but are neutral, as many are — are presented unfavourably by state media,” Muyembe explains. For those who are explicitly critical, he says, the situation can get even worse. With this in mind, Habari has put together some helpful advice for bloggers and citizen journalists. 

Online freedoms too remain under strain in the absence of clear laws on the internet, Muyembe says. “While we do want to see such a law, we are also nervous because it could go in a very bad direction and is open to abuse.” As Habari has reported, the hacking of websites ahead of the election has facilitated both censorship and fake news. 

Young Congolese people were at the forefront of calls for Kabila not to seek re-election, and Muyembe and his colleagues are keen to ensure that the voices of the country’s youth continue to be heard. Habari took part in Speak, a worldwide campaign organised by the NGO Civicus, in November, which sought to raise awareness and build global solidarity in an era when people around the world are facing increased attacks on their basic freedoms. Habari hosted the Gala of Peace, a meeting between young supporters of different political parties and members of citizen movements, that included theatre and dance as well as discussion.

“This year, the idea was to try to work on uniting people who’ve been divided, whether it’s on the social level or the political level,” Muyembe says. “This has much relevance in the DRC, for the divisions that exist between those people who are pro and anti-regime, between the old and young, between men and women and those of different tribes.”

The DRC is also right now in the middle of one of the worst Ebola outbreaks in its history, exacerbated by the ongoing unrest, making it impossible to transport adequate medical care to those in need. “This crisis is different this time around because it’s happening in a part of the country which has been severely affected by the war — the Kivu province in the east of the country,” Muyembe says. “Because of the war, there is a mass migration of the population there whenever there is an attack, which could turn into a major Ebola crisis as there’s a lot of people moving around.”

Next year will be a busy one for Habari in continuing to cover all of these issues. Going forward, the organisation’s biggest challenge, Muyembe says, is ensuring the project has a future as Habari’s partnership with RNW Media, a Dutch organisation that helps young people make social change, along with the essential funding from this relationship, ends in 2020.

However, becoming an Index on Censorship Fellow offers much hope, Muyembe says. “The award has increased how well-known the project is, and how serious it appears. If we now go to meet someone in Kinshasa to talk about the project, or go to an embassy to try to organise something, we are better received.” 

For Habari, the training provided by Index, such as the virtual sessions on reporting on elections, has also been invaluable, Muyembe adds. The next training session, by Protection International in January, will focus on developing security and protection management strategies.

Muyembe says that people are often suspicious of organisations involving young people, but the Index award has made things a little easier in this regard. “Every day, colleagues have been telling me that they need to have a copy of the prize that they receive on their website,” he says. “It’s like a business card.”

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Habari RDC working to see young people’s issues taken into account


Since winning the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award Fellowship for Digital Activism, Habari RDC, a collective of Congolese bloggers and web activists giving voice to the opinions of the country’s young people, has celebrated its second birthday.

Reflecting on its successes since July 2016 and the challenges still to come, Guy Muyembe, president of Habari, tells Index on Censorship: “It’s worth noting that Habari RDC started out as just an informal collective of Congolese bloggers, with no recognised structures or official documents. Being recognised by the Congolese state as a legally established organisation has been a great success.”

As well as the Index on Censorship award, Habari RDC was one of three beneficiaries of the Francophone Awards for Innovation in the Media and was selected for the Dutch NGO RNW Media’s Citizen’s Voice programme. “This programme provides us with an annual endowment that covers our running costs, but also with consistent editorial support, which enables Habari RDC to produce quality blog posts,” Muyembe says.

Habari’s website now ranks among the biggest online news outlets in the country and its Facebook page is one of the most popular among Congolese users.

As the organisation grows, it is becoming more ambitious and most now focus on further training for its staff. “We feel a great need to step up our expertise,” Muyembe says. “We are particularly interested in learning how to evaluate the impact of our activities, but also in social media training.”

In July, Habari received training from the University of Essex’s Tim Fenton on reporting on elections. “The training was very useful and came at the right time, as the election period approaches. It will help us to perfect a proper work plan for the election coverage.”

A presidential election is due to take place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 23 December 2018, more than two years behind schedule. Muyembe’s greatest hope for the election is peace. “Like many of my compatriots, I’m tired of war,” he says. “Free and democratic elections would certainly cement the legitimacy of the leaders and put an end to this cycle of war.”

On June 10 2018, Luc Nkulula, a democracy activist and a leader in the peaceful movement against president Joseph Kabila’s rule, died in a suspicious fire at his home in the eastern city of Goma. Nkulula was an active member of the citizens’ movement Struggle for Change.

“Luc Nkulula’s death is a great shock and a great challenge for all Congolese activists. To be honest, it has shown how dangerous being an engaged citizen can be. Far from discouraging the activists, though, this has galvanised them,” Muyembe says.

Muyembe tells Index that violations against the media are widespread and have lead to an overall decrease in the quality of journalism, which is especially problematic in the run-up to an election.

“Journalists are forced to self-censor or even to compromise their principles in order to keep working, but our experience with Habari RDC has shown that treating information fairly is one of the main ways for media organisations to protect themselves against certain predators of the press,” he says. “It is in the interests of media organisations in the Congo not to side with political groups or constituencies. As it happens, online organisations have more freedom than other media — television, radio, newspapers — and they must make the most of that.”

Muyembe says online media is freer as the government is “not yet capable of controlling the internet”. However, as political tensions in the country have escalated, more threats to online freedoms are emerging. “There is a risk of another complete internet shutdown if the political crisis reaches fever pitch, but it is fair to say that Congolese netizens enjoy great freedom when compared to neighbouring countries in Central Africa,” Muyembe says.

Ahead of the election, Habari will be focusing on social cohesion and inclusive government. The country has been in crisis since independence in 1960. “Most of the leaders who have governed the country since then have encountered issues of legitimacy,” Muyembe says. “In that same time, the people — especially the young — have faced great poverty: more than half the population lives on less than $1 per day, according to the World Bank’s statistics.”

Because of these problems, Muyembe says huge hopes hinge on December’s election.

“We will train our bloggers so that they will be better equipped to confront issues, but also to enter into a dialogue with the decision-makers so that their programmes can give more consideration to young people’s concerns,” Muyembe says. “This is where this year’s elections become so important to us: they will enable us to try to get the decision-makers to take young people’s issues into account.”[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/4″][vc_column_text]

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