Skip to main content
opinion

Rachel Pulfer is executive director of Journalists for Human Rights

Badylon Kawanda is a journalist with Radio Tomisa, a station broadcasting in Kikwit, the capital of Kwilu. Kwilu is a province in the southwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

A gentle, thoughtful man who has covered everything from corruption related to climate-change policy to navigating hyperpartisan pressure through elections, Mr. Kawanda came to Kinshasa in March to attend a national forum on best practices for reporters covering elections.

The forum was co-ordinated by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) DRC, the local arm of the organization I run. Mr. Kawanda is the president of JHR's chapter of journalists in Kwilu. I had the privilege to speak with him at length, and was struck by his steely courage and sharp news judgment.

Six weeks after the forum ended, Mr. Kawanda was on the floor of a small office in the provincial headquarters of the security services of the Agence Nationale de Renseignements or ANR – DRC's National Intelligence Agency.

According to testimony gathered by Journalistes en danger, a press-freedom organization based in Kinshasa, he went to the ANR office to investigate the arbitrary detention of someone working at a local travel agency. When he arrived, the head of the division threw him to the ground, saying he had to be "corrected" for being so "insolent." He was so badly beaten he had to be hospitalized, and his equipment was destroyed.

This is what it can mean to be a journalist in the Congo.

On World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate the media's ability to work without fear – a key bellwether for the health of a democracy. If the state of press freedom in the DRC is anything to go by, Congolese democracy is facing its toughest year yet.

Journalists for Human Rights has been working in the DRC since 2007. Our current project there trains journalists navigating the precarious politics of the period leading up to elections.

The forum Mr. Kawanda attended was historic: It was the first time media met at a national level in the DRC. Journalists came to discuss ways to regulate their own affairs through elections. Through it, the group established a national network, Club JDH RDC. They agreed to be bound by a code of good conduct. And they committed to work together to combat threats. As JHR DRC's country director, Freddy Mata, put it: "At a certain moment, we have to chase out fear."

Since the attack happened on April 14, members of the Club JDH RDC have condemned ANR's attack on Mr. Kawanda. For its part, press freedom advocate Journalistes en danger urges the general director of the country's national intelligence agency, Kalev Mutond, to investigate Mr. Kawanda's beating – and bring those responsible to justice.

In 2016, the environment in which these journalists work is particularly fraught. Theoretically, DRC should be conducting elections, but the electoral calendar has not yet been published. Most expect the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, in power for 15 years, to disregard the constitution and run for a third term. The tone in Kinshasa was of uneasy calm, following a stormy month of protests in February.

DRC does not often make international headlines for attacks on journalists. Unlike nearby South Sudan, which is 12 points better off on the Press Freedom Index developed by Reporters without Borders, DRC is not a United Nations Strategy Country for press freedom. Yet every Congolese journalist knows a colleague who was detained, was beaten, has "disappeared" or worse in the course of their work.

This year, the window for press freedom narrowed further. Currently, one of the largest broadcasters in strategically important Katanga Province remains shut down. The government cites "improper paperwork"; the outlet was previously owned by Moise Katumbi, former governor of Katanga. Many regard Mr. Katumbi as Mr. Kabila's leading opponent.

This situation casts significant doubt on the credibility of any electoral result conducted in such a menacing atmosphere. Which is why it is important for Canada, as a key investor, donor and diaspora host country for the DRC, to know about the courageous work Mr. Kawanda does – and the horrific price he has paid for it.

The world we now live in is complex, interconnected and interdependent – and paying attention. Those in power in the DRC who stand by and do nothing, while journalists like Mr. Kawanda are beaten, detained, harassed or worse, would do well to keep that point in mind.