Cablegate: Dr Congo's Post-Transition Media Scene

DE RUEHKI #0314/01 0741604
R 151604Z MAR 07




E.O.12958: N/A

Sensitive but Unclassified. Not for Internet Distribution.

1. (SBU) Summary: In an open letter to President Joseph Kabila,
media watchdog Journaliste En Danger (JED) frames the debate on the
DRC's post-election media scene. JED argues that freedom of
expression continues to be violated, and it recommends specific
legislation to protect the media, notably decriminalizing libel and
imposing sunshine laws on government operations. Preceding any such
legislation, however, will be a law establishing the next iteration
of the High Media Authority (HAM) and continued regulation of the
media. The momentum of free expression in the DRC's vibrant media
scene is now such, however, that emphasis is probably better placed
on raising the level of journalist professionalism than attempting,
by law and regulation, to re-bottle this genie. That said, the new
Minister of Information and Press reportedly sees his job as
"bringing order" to the media. JED lists (para 7 below) recent
violations of press freedom. End Summary.

Transparency is the Antidote to Secrecy and Corruption
--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (U) Journaliste En Danger president Donat MBaya Tshimanga and
Secretary General Tshivis Tshivaudi addressed their March 5 letter

to President Joseph Kabila, Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga, and
National Assembly Speaker Vital Kamerhe. Arguing that good
governance depends on transparency, they exhort the GDRC leadership
to see a vigorous press as the best guarantor of both.
Unfortunately, according to the JED leaders, the current media law,
enacted in 1996, criminalizes press transgressions and does nothing
for access to what should be public information. The result, they
say, is secrecy and concomitant corruption.

New legislation, too

3 (U) The JED officials advocate laws which would:

- Strengthen the commercial vocation of the media (presumably so
that journalists would be properly paid and less tempted to sell
editorial slants);
- Remove from the penal code cases of alleged libel, defamation,
publication of false information and insults to public figures and
institutions. In the case of alleged defamation, for example, the
penal code requires a judge to consider only the offense felt by the
plaintiff, and not the veracity of the journalist's assertions. JED
contends that journalists want to, and should, police their own
- Limit the scope of the next iteration of the High Media Authority
(HAM) to monitoring media offenses, not sanctioning them.
- Be the equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),
promoting transparency (and giving journalists real facts to report,
rather than groundless, troublesome speculation).

4. (U) In addition to legislation, JED also proposes that there be a
national debate about transforming government-owned and operated
media into "public" media. (Note: JED has, in fact, asked us and
other donors for funding for such a formal debate, which it would
organize.) The JED letter notes that the (pro-Kabila) bias of
state-owned RTNC during the electoral campaigns prompted other
candidates to create their own dedicated media, a development which
encouraged heated, even extremist, one-sided broadcasts. In effect,
JED also proposes that the national discussion extend to the
question of political party-owned media.

Whither the HAM

5. (SBU) The High Media Authority is to morph into the High Council
for Audiovisual Media and Communications (CSAC), according to
article 212 of the new constitution. Framework legislation creating
the CSAC is reportedly to be on the agenda for the March 15 session
of the National Assembly, and there is a race to draft the CSAC
bill. According to those who were there, the new Minister of
Information and Press, Tshilombe Send, said at a dinner February 28,
hosted by the Wallonie/Brussels delegation, that the HAM is dead,
and that there was no point entertaining the HAM's bill over his
ministry's forthcoming draft. (Note: According to the constitution,
transitional institutions remain until replaced. Therefore, the HAM
is not dead. The HAM has certainly been weakened, however, by the
departure of its respected president, Modeste Mutinga, recently
elected to the Senate. End Note)

6. (SBU) Whichever version of the CSAC law prevails on the floor of
the National Assembly, the constitution already provides some
guidance; namey, that the CSAC protect freedom of the media,
mnitor journalistic ethics, and assure equitable acess to official

KINSHASA 00000314 002 OF 002

media. JED and many journalists hope for a limited scope of action
for the CSAC. Drafting a second law on press freedom, which would
hopefully decriminalize defamation, will follow, and similarly be
cause for tussles between the CSAC, the Ministry, and members of the

Recent Violations of Press Freedom

7. (U) The long JED letter reviews several recent abuses of press
freedom to make its case for more liberal legislation governing
alleged press offenses:

- On February 27, Popol Ntula Vita, a reporter working for the
weekly 'La Cite Africaine,' was sentenced to three months for
defamation and "harmful suppositions" in Bas-Congo province after
accusing four General Tax Office officials of embezzling license
plate fees in Boma.

- Elsewhere in Bas-Congo, on February 2 (a day after clashes between
Bundu dia Kongo and police), reporter Nelson Thamba of Community
Radio Moanda was beaten by a local police chief after asking
questions about the fighting. The police chief has ignored a court
summons, according to JED.

- Rigobert Kwakala Kash, another Bas-Congo journalist, had similarly
been arrested and sentenced to 11 months in January 2007 for
accusations leveled against the provincial governor. Kwakala was
released February 16 after 35 days in jail.

- Journalist Bonsange Mbaka of the bi-weekly 'Mambenga'was arrested
November 21, 2006, following the torching that day of the Supreme
Court in Kinshasa. Bonsange has yet to appear before a court.

- On December 1, 2006, journalist Papy Tombe of Canal Congo
Television (CCTV) was jailed on unstated charges. He also has not
appeared before a court.

8. (SBU) Comment: An expected post-election culling in the media may
not happen, due largely to politicians' desire to maintain this kind
of public platform. Kinshasa alone has, by one reputable count, 49
television stations, not counting international satellite
television. There are more than 200 radio stations in the DRC.
UN-supported Radio Okapi operates an independent radio network with
national coverage. JED plans to act on its long-held conviction --
that transforming state media into public media would reduce the
number of narrowly based political media -- by organizing a
conference on this subject in May. OMEC, another Congolese media
watchdog group, is planning several provincial conferences later
this month to preach objectivity and credibility in journalism,
fearful that the alternative will engender political instability.
Into this dynamic scene steps a new Minister of Information and
Press who, according to his Walloon interlocutors, promised to
"bring order," even if it makes him the "most unpopular" minister.
We will meet with him soon.

9. (SBU) Comment continued: Media can indeed throw salt where scars
of strife -- and the new democratic institutions meant to mend them
-- are tender. In such an environment, media self-reflection should
be encouraged. The momentum of free expression in a vibrant media
environment is such in the DRC that the onus should be on laws and
regulatory bodies - and journalistic ethics - to catch up. End


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