Tom Rhodes is the Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile eastern city of Goma during her historic seven nation tour of Africa. Press briefings from the state department highlighted her intentions to address a chronic problem particularly acute in this region: violence against women. The home of the deadliest war since World War II; Congolese women have, to this day, been the main victims and targets of marauding militias and government soldiers.
“In just one province alone there was recorded 40 women being raped every day — 13 percent were under the age of 14 and 10-12 percent contracted HIV,” remarked photojournalist Marcus Beasdale in a Mediastorm interview last year. The award-winning journalist had spent a grueling eight years in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and saw firsthand the systematic use of rape as a tool of war.
Watch the Worldfocus signature story: Rape as a weapon of war in DR Congo.
But there are more local voices that live in this war-torn area that continue to cry out against this plight. Franchou Namegabe Nabintu, or ‘Chouchou’ as her friends call her, is a founding member of the South Kivu’s Association of Women Journalists (AFEM) and plans to meet Clinton tomorrow. Since 2003, Nabintu and her female colleagues have trained female journalists and produced programs concerning women’s issues. No stranger to American politics, Nabintu testified before the U.S. Senate in May to call for more international support to end the ongoing gender-based violence. Her efforts to mobilize women have not come easy. Nabintu told the New York-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the numerous threats she receives for her work and the exorbitant fees AFEM must pay local radio stations to get their programs broadcasted.
But despite the staggering crisis in the DRC and courageous advocacy efforts by journalists such as Nabintu, the DRC catastrophe has received relatively scant international media coverage. The Congolese crisis represents a dangerous, costly operation for most foreign media bureaus with a complex story not easily digested by western audiences. But there is also a more straightforward reason for the lack of western media coverage: censorship.
Since the beginning of this year, Radio France International (RFI) has been cut off the air by the government three times, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. One of two major foreign broadcasters in the region, Congolese citizens heard static since late July after authorities shuttered the station. At a press conference in the capital, Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende accused the station of “a systematic campaign of demoralization of the armed forced of the DRC,” AFP reported.
According to freelance journalist Charles Mushivizi, RFI has been unpopular with the government since 2006, after the station produced a series of stories critical of the army. The stories reported on rising criminality among the Congolese army ranks — including rapes, looting and the embezzlement of soldiers’ pay by superior officers. One journalist, Ghislaine Dupont, was expelled for her coverage but continues to report on the country, Mushivizi says.
In all three RFI bans this year, Congolese authorities never disputed the accuracy of the French broadcaster’s reports. According to Mushivizi, Mende warned that the authorities would not tolerate any information the government deems prejudicial to troop morale, “no matter the accuracy of the information.”
The only other major international station, Radio Okapi — a joint project of the Hirondelle Foundation and the United Nations — has had two reporters murdered in mysterious circumstances since June 2007. Botched investigations into the murders of Radio Okapi journalists Didace Namujimbo and Serge Maheshe have allowed their murderers total impunity.
Few locals in South Kivu listen to national broadcasts since they are generally controlled by political forces, Mushivizi said, while the press is hampered by fiscal and political pressures. With RFI banned and local media compromised — there are few voices left to report one of the world’s greatest tragedies.
As Hillary meets President Joseph Kabila to call for an end to the mass rapes that plague eastern Congo, she must also call for an end to media censorship. The free flow of independent information within and outside the country is pivotal to solving the rape crisis.
– Tom Rhodes
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