As the period of electoral campaigning approaches, threats to freedom of expression and association are growing. Officials targeted supporters of opposition parties, journalists, and human rights activists, apparently hoping to silence criticism and thus increase their chances for electoral success.
In January and again in June 2005, FARDC troops and police killed scores of demonstrators in several cities who were protesting delays in the election schedule. Abuses of demonstrators were most severe in the town of Mbuyi Mayi, in Kasai Oriental province, an area known for its’ support to the opposition UDPS. According to human rights investigators, DRC security forces summarily executed 15 persons and injured 26 others, most of them shot during demonstrations. Scores of people were arbitrarily arrested, many of them UDPS party members who were specifically targeted. Some, including the local UPDS president and vice-president, were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment.
In May 2005, over one hundred people were arrested in Katanga, accused of plotting a secession attempt. Many of those arrested were political opponents of President Joseph Kabila, including André Tshombé, the president of the political party CONACO (Confédération Nationale du Congo) and son of former Prime Minister and Katangan secessionist leader Moise Tshombé. The detainees were moved from Katanga to Kinshasa where some spent weeks and others months in prison before being released. To date little evidence has been presented to support the accusation of plotting secession and no one has been brought to trial.
Human rights activists and journalists who criticize the government have suffered from arbitrary arrest and threats from unidentified persons. A media watchdog organization, Reporters Without Borders, recorded 36 cases of arrest of journalists from January through July 2005, a significant increase over the previous year.
On November 3, a political columnist from the Kinshasa daily newspaper La Réference Plus, Franck Ngyke Kangundu and his wife Hélène Mpaka, were killed by assailants who took no money or valuables before leaving the scene. Three police officers were later charged with the murders, one of whom claimed to have been tortured into signing a confession.
In some cases authorities use the provision of Congolese law that makes defamation a crime in order to silence critics, a strategy that works well given the inadequate functioning of the judicial system. In July 2005, for example, Jean-Marie Kanku was arrested on charges of criminal defamation after he published an article alleging that a state official had misused humanitarian reconstruction funds. He was released on bail and has not yet been tried. When his newspaper, L’Alerte, published articles on a corruption scandal involving the security services, Kanku was arrested by security agents on October. He was held for several days incommunicado and then was charged with “threatening state security.”
On July 1 the High Media Authority (Haute Autorité des médias, HAM), a DRC government agency responsible for supervising media, ordered the temporary closing of the popular Kinshasa TV station RAGA after it broadcast footage of demonstrators protesting election delays. The authority accused RAGA of "blatantly partial" news coverage, a charge denied by local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED).
This censorship followed earlier closures of TV and radio stations owned by Vice President Jean Pierre Bemba in January 2005 and the temporary closure in May of a local radio station in Mbuyi Mayi after it reported unrest in the town. In October 2005, the National Press Union of Congo (Union Nationale de la presse du Congo, UNPC) decided to suspend its participation in all activities of the state media authority to protest against the closing of media outlets and the detention of journalists.
In July, Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi, a prominent human rights activist, was shot dead in his home in Bukavu by armed men. Following an international outcry, the governor of South Kivu set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the murder. On November 28, three soldiers accused of the killing were brought to trial in Bukavu. But the military court hearing the case did not have jurisdiction over higher-ranking officers, at least one of whom appears to have been involved in the killing.
Threats to and attacks on freedom of expression risk reducing the credibility of the electoral process. Already people are voicing concerns. One woman said to a Human Rights Watch researcher, “We will not be given a free choice. Won’t we be able to vote just for those who are already in power?” Others expressed concern over the vote for the referendum and the lack of publicity about the content and importance of the constitution. Whether favouring the proposed changes in governmental structure or not, anyone tempted to vote no recognizes that rejecting the constitution would end the electoral process. Because of the dawdling of political leaders in Kinshasa, there is too little time to prepare any other choice before the June 30, 2006 deadline. A local NGO representative said to a Human Rights Watch researcher, “We are being presented with a fait accompli.”
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