Cablegate: Congolese Media and the Environment in Which They

DE RUEHKI #1089/01 3500756
R 160756Z DEC 09 ZDK




E.O.12958: N/A

REF: (A) Kinshasa 448; (B) Kinshasa 969;
(C) Kinshasa 1044

KINSHASA 00001089 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary: The media environment in the Democratic Republic
of the Congo (DRC) is unusually problematic and complicated, even by
African standards. This is the first in a series of reports on the
DRC press and mass media designed to help USG readers better
understand the constraints and challenges we face as we in the field
endeavor to promote freedom of the press and to identify
opportunities for capacity building and professional and ethical
training for Congolese journalists. This goal becomes more urgent
as the nation prepares for local and national elections in 2011.
This installment provides background data and focuses on political,
economic and cultural constraints to a more meaningful application
of press freedom. End summary.

2. (SBU) The DRC has 10 daily newspapers (all published in
Kinshasa), 82 television stations, and some 280 radio stations. Due
to the diversity of the media, the country's physical size, cultural
and linguistic differences, as well as a severe lack of development
and technological infrastructure, the DRC is a challenging
environment in which to communicate with the public. More than 65
million people are spread across nearly 1.5 million square miles
(lack of an official census means much demographic data are
estimates). French is the official language, and there are four
officially recognized indigenous languages (Lingala, Kiswahili,
Kikongo and Tshiluba), as well as 250 other languages and dialects.
The adult literacy rate is about 65.5 percent in a local language
and approximately 30 percent in French. Cell phone usage is common,
mostly in the larger cities, with 68 percent of Kinshasa residents
having access to a cell phone, and more than 6.5 million cell phone
users in the entire country, according to one survey.

3. (SBU) All media are hampered by poor telecommunications and
transportation infrastructure. Only one television station and five
radio stations broadcast to all eleven provinces, and their signals
do not reach the entire population. The DRC does not have a
land-line phone system or a functioning postal service. Internet
penetration is among the lowest in Africa (0.4 percent) and even
where available bandwidth is very low. Surface transportation is
extremely limited between major cities. In urban areas, electricity
is unreliable, while in rural areas it is often non-existent. There
is a severe lack of published reading material. Newspapers and
magazine publication is restricted to the capital and a few larger
cities, with circulation of the Kinshasa dailies between 500 and
2,000 copies. Paper is imported, and printing costs are
prohibitive, particularly in the provinces, leading to a periodical
cover price that most Congolese cannot afford.

Press freedom

4. (SBU) In the 1990's, under pressure from the international
community, restrictions on the Congolese press were lifted first by
Mobutu and then, to a greater degree, by Laurent Kabila. Private
radio and television stations emerged, and daily and weekly
newspapers began publishing at a rapid rate. Still, both the
written and electronic media suffered from official harassment and
Qwritten and electronic media suffered from official harassment and
repression by the GDRC. The military courts and different security
forces were particularly hostile to the media and attempted to
influence it through intimidation.

5. (SBU) Today, the DRC media can be characterized as somewhat free
in the sense that there is a broad range of different print and
broadcast media, operating with relatively few formal constraints.
Article 24 of the 2005 Constitution states: "Every person has the
right to information. Freedom of the press, free access to
information and broadcasts by radio and television, the printed
press and all other means of communication are guaranteed within the
limits of the respect of public order, social norms and the rights
of others."

Government hostility to press freedom

6. (SBU) Despite constitutional guarantees, political and economic
pressures severely limit press freedom. While DRC journalists might
have statutory rights to freedom of expression, in reality powerful
forces compel them to exercise self-censorship or to modify their
news reports to please the government or other powerful interests.
Freedom House's 2008 Freedom of the Press survey rates the DRC as

KINSHASA 00001089 002.2 OF 003

"Not Free," commenting: "Statutes provide for freedom of the press,
but the government continues to sharply restrict the work of
journalists through a variety of means." These include political
pressure, financial incentives, and sometimes intimidation and
threats. Specific acts restricting press freedom are pursued by
officials at nearly all levels of government, from local police and
internal security agents to government ministers. The lack of a
properly functioning judicial system, absence of a balance of powers
between different branches of government, and widespread corruption
render the existing laws concerning press freedom almost meaningless
in terms of practical application.

7. (SBU) Joseph Kabila's first years as appointed president
(2001-2006) saw relative stability in terms of press freedom. Since
Kabila's election at president in 2006, however, acts of violence
and intimidation against journalists are on the rise, including the
murders of four reporters in the past three years, and death threats
against many others. While some of these threats are credible, and
indeed have been acted upon, others are simply crude attempts at
intimidation. The Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo
(GDRC) has repeatedly said that it takes these threats seriously and
is investigating both the previous murders and the new threats. Yet
many in the international and journalistic communities believe that,
even if the government leadership is not behind the violence and
threats, their silence has condoned the behavior. In addition, the
GDRC has undertaken several actions to sanction and censor
journalists and news organizations. The most dramatic of these acts
was cutting off the signal of Radio France International (RFI)
throughout the DRC on July 26, 2009 (ref A and previous). Even when
such actions are consistent with the law (and this would not seem to
be the case when RFI was silenced), they frequently target media
that support the opposition, or, as in the case of RFI, are
perceived as overly critical of the GDRC, particularly in matters
perceived to be related to national security.

8. (SBU) On September 29, 2009, Minister of Communications and
Media Lambert Mende sent foreign journalists based in the DRC a
letter informing them that they were now subject to the military
penal code, and exposed to prosecution if their news reports are
determined to be "damaging to military morale." (ref B and
previous.) Mende has also made several public statements and even
published a "white paper" critical of NGOs reporting on human rights
violations. In one press interview, Mende suggested that NGO
representatives be accredited as journalists and subjected to the
same legal restrictions and professional sanctions as members of the
fourth estate. Most of the news reports from the conflict zones in
eastern DRC originate from Radio Okapi or human rights NGOs. (Note:
According to a sample study conducted by PAS Kinshasa, 75 percent
of news stories about conflict in eastern DRC during the period of
one month originated from Radio Okapi, while the rest were provided
by NGOs. End note.) Without these sources, there would be little
or no news from the conflict zones. Many in the diplomatic,
international and journalistic communities fear that is exactly what
Qinternational and journalistic communities fear that is exactly what
the GDRC wants. On November 27, Mende met with U.S. and other
Western diplomats to discuss press freedom, and while Mende did not
offer any specifics addressing the diplomats' concerns, his tone and
manner was uncharacteristically conciliatory (ref C).

Economic challenges to press freedom

9. (SBU) Overall, the economy is under-developed, with annual per
capita GDP at $100 (the dollar is used as an unofficial second
currency, alongside the Congolese Franc). The vast majority of
economic activity is informal. Salaries in the formal sector are
low and frequently in arrears. Journalists often go unpaid, and
lack reliable internet access, books and other publications, and
training in professional techniques and ethics.

10. (SBU) Lack of economic development and diversity render it
difficult -- even impossible -- for a business model where news
media can rely upon advertising for revenues. And those few
companies (mostly in the telecommunications and beverage industries)
that can afford advertising support entertainment programming rather
than news broadcasts. Paid advertising in the printed press is
extremely limited.

11. (SBU) The absence of commercial revenue opportunities forces
all media to rely on some form of patronage. The GDRC funds
(although inadequately) the public television and radio broadcast
system known as the Radio Television Nationale Congolaise (RTNC).
Private news outlets are financed by political figures and business
leaders seeking to influence policy and public opinion. Between

KINSHASA 00001089 003.2 OF 003

2004 and 2008, bi-lateral and multi-lateral partners have
contributed more than $60 million to support Congolese media. These
funds have gone toward capacity building in training and education
of journalists, as well as supporting organizations and institutions
concerned with the media. While this participation is vital to
encouraging a free and responsible press, it also creates a
dependence on outside support that will require transition to
sustainability in the near future, particularly with elections
planned for 2011. During the last elections, Radio Liberty, owned
by opposition candidate and International Criminal Court defendant
Jean-Pierre Bemba, was used to incite violence.

12. (SBU) The legally mandated minimum wage for a journalist is $3
per day, for a monthly salary of $78. Yet, most journalists do not
work under contract, and while some media organizations pay their
employees regularly, many do not. Unpaid reporters are left to rely
on remuneration for story placement, known as "coupage." All those
who work in or with the DRC press know about "coupage," and no
efforts are made to hide or discourage it. Without the revenues
generated by "coupage," many journalistic enterprises could not
survive. The standard price is $50 for a newspaper article or radio
emission and $100 for a television report (more if a full camera
crew is required). "Coupage" can be paid either to reporters or
editorial directors, and is expected to be shared. Disputes over
the distribution of "coupage" are often a source of conflict in the

13. (SBU) Sometimes "coupage" can become regularized, as
journalists are put on retainer by government officials, while
continuing to report on stories in which their patrons are involved.
Journalists in the "private" press who enjoy political patronage
join their colleagues in the government-run television and radio
network RTNC in the ethical netherworld between journalist and press
agent. Another consequence of "coupage" is that the editorial line
of a press organ can be wildly inconsistent. A newspaper might be
harshly critical of an official one day, and publish a "puff piece"
the next. In a form of public blackmail, some journalists will
write a hatchet job on a public figure in order to get paid for an
article that makes amends. Broad knowledge of "coupage" also
contributes to public cynicism toward the press. Yet as detrimental
as "coupage" is to journalistic objectivity and credibility, no
other viable alternative business models presently exist.

14. Comment: While enjoying great diversity and certain legal
guarantees, the DRC press faces enormous political and economic
challenges, which reduce its ability to report the news
independently and responsibly. End comment.


© Scoop Media

World Headlines


UN Agriculture: Helps Protect Against Threat Of Locust In Yemen

Following heavy widespread rains in Yemen, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) remains on high alert... More>>

UNFCCC: Simon Stiell Appointed New Executive Secretary
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appointed Simon Stiell as the new Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat based in Bonn, Germany...

Binoy Kampmark: Europe Dries Up
Scenes and pictures have been circulating of broken earth, lacking moisture, cracked and yearning. But these are not from traditional drought-stricken parts of the planet, where the animal carcass assumes near totemic power... More>>

Afghanistan: One Year On From Regime Change And Children Face An Unimaginable A Crisis
On the one-year anniversary of regime change in Afghanistan, a new World Vision report highlights the grave risk the country’s children face from starvation, forced child marriage, and child labour... More>>

Somalia: ‘We Cannot Wait For Famine To Be Declared; We Must Act Now’
Rising acute food insecurity in Somalia has caused more than 900,000 people to flee their homes in search of humanitarian assistance since January last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned... More>>

UN: American West Faces Water And Power Shortages Due To Climate Crisis
Two of the largest reservoirs in the United States are at dangerously low levels due to the climate crisis and overconsumption of water, which could affect water and electricity supply for millions in six western states and Mexico, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned on Tuesday... More>>