Sunday, August 2, 2009

Want to listen to Radio France Internationale? Pas au Congo

This week, the DRC government cut the radio signal for Radio France France Internationale (RFI). RFI, which is basically the equivalent of Voice of America, has a 27% audience share in DRC. Its signal was cut for the third time in three months.

What did RFI report about to warrant being banned? The Committee to Protect Journalists says:
RFI stated that Congolese authorities faulted the station for citing a July 22 AFP news item that reported on the desertion of ex-rebels who had joined the national army as part of a peace deal. The AFP report quoted the military spokesman of the United Nations Organization Mission in DRC, Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, as saying that the deserters complained of nonpayment of salaries, ethnic conflicts, and sluggish bureaucracy within the Congolese army.
None of this is untrue so it's a clear case of the government not wanting its difficulties broadly reported. If it's true, one of the government's legitimate criticisms of RFI is that the station was not giving the authorities airtime to deny the reporting or further explain events from their own point of view.

So why does it matter? Because radio is how people get news in Congo. The population is largely illiterate so radio is how people find out what's going on. As in other places, radio broadcasts can of course be used mobilize listeners but they can also be used to defuse tension by keeping listeners better informed. This is why most UN missions set up radio stations. In Congo, the station is called Radio Okapi and they play an important part not just in keeping people informed and defusing tensions, but also in training journalists and highlighting the role that media can play in keeping authorities open and accountable.

Radio Okapi did report on why RFI was banned, providing the government's reasoning and an interview with a media defense organization (the article is in French). That part of the article says the media defense organization agrees with the government's decision and that RFI will have to be more accommodating in order to resume its broadcasts.

So the larger questions I think include how do you balance freedom of the press with legal requirements to "not demoralize troops who are conducting ongoing operations" and at what points should donors, MONUC, and others protest these types of decisions? I'm skeptical that reporting on the well-known difficulties the FARDC faces as it integrates formerly rebel CNDP forces and battles the FDLR warrants shutting down a radio station. The government's heavy-handedness also makes me wonder what the repercussions will be for other stations as they work to report on the same issues.

What is the role and responsibility of the media in reporting about challenges to ongoing operations? How will the remaining radio stations work within the parameters set by the Congolese authorities? What's the difference for media between working within operational security requirements, being a tool of one party's information operations, and censoring?

12 comments:

  1. Lil,

    A buddy just wrote this from Freetown:

    http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1913928,00.html

    SNLII

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  2. On another note, I yell "whoa!"
    What's this "government of Congo"
    That apparently in Kinshasa rules
    Anything but bums, thugs and fools?
    Or is the foot led solely by a toe?

    SNLII

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  3. A new media reality rules the day,
    RBGNs and sat phones are the new way
    Inked-stained wretches send their bytes
    To globalized consumers, days or nights,
    With no government minders at the soiree.

    SNLII

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  4. RFI est accusée de démoraliser les troupes:
    Un plat d'excrements! A pot of poops!
    Les troupes, they're Underpaid, underfed,
    Poorly armed, poorly trained, poorly led,
    More akin to brigands than organized groups.

    SNLII

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  5. Radio Okapi, il est tres drole:
    Congolese troops rule by le viol,
    Then plunder, torture and the lash,
    Each battalion unleashed to get cash
    Stolen from refugies parmi les peuple.

    SNLII

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  6. Oxfam and the NGO crowd,
    Won't protest all that loud!
    They and Kabila are joined at the ass
    Frauds and hypocrites beyond surpass
    And on that point really quite proud.

    SNLII

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  7. Hard questions should be asked about aid
    And all the donations that were paid
    To do business as usual in Congo,
    Treating the donor like l'idiot
    Her sincerity, her charity, betrayed.

    SNLII

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  8. SNLII--yes the FARDC are not an army worthy of that name and the past/ongoing SSR efforts have neither been well-planned nor well executed. They also keep running out of money and no one has figured out a way to separate chain of payment from chain of command.

    The best analysis I've read about SSR in Congo so far has been Sebastien Melmot's "Candide au Congo: L'echec annonce de la reforme du secteur de securite en RDC." The link is here: http://www.ifri.org/files/Securite_defense/Focus_Candide_Congo.pdf. It's long and yes, only in French, but I think very good.

    I think the current problem is actually that the former CNDP guys, who in fact were paid, supplied, had a C2 structure, etc are very likely leaving and not fighting. I guess we'll have to wait and see how long this integration lasts and if it doesn't whether CNDP re-forms as something else.


    I liked the way a Le Monde article (and I've lost the link) described FARDC when it was beign routed by CNDP last fall: "L'armee congolaise n'est jamais aussi dangeureuse que lorsqu'elle est en deroute." Or, as you said rape and looting are systematic but even worse when they're losing...

    On the donor front, Melmot explains this well too. He says Kabila has been a master at playing the donors against each other and doing so in such a way that it matters more that they're doing something than how well they're doing it. In short, the donors, whether bilateral, MONUC, or others are so invested in presence, they're not paying enough attention to what they say they want to accomplish.

    I've been told by people involved with some of the SSR programs that Kabila won't meet with all of them at once, likely for fear they'll gang up on him and make him accept conditions he'd rather not or do things that would diminish his control.

    I think said donors should wake up, outline new conditions for continued assistance and enforce them. That and I think someone needs to stop ignoring the natural resource exploitation issue...but it's time for a walk:)

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  9. Lil - thanks. I am now going to have to dust off my French Rosetta Stone discs that I've been putting off for two years now.

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  10. “Nothing remains of the guerrilla’s heroic halo. Once ideologically armed to the teeth and exploited by their shadowy backers, today’s guerrillas and anti-guerrillas have become self-employed. What remains is the armed mob. All the self-proclaiming armies of liberation,
    people’s movements and fronts degenerate into marauding bands, indistinguishable from their opponents…What gives today’s civil wars a new and terrifying slant is the fact that they are waged without stakes on either side, that they are wars about nothing at all.”

    Hans Magnus Enzensberger (and SNLII)

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  11. SNLII--I finally read the article about Sierra Leone. It struck a nice balance I thought between explaining why music would help and a more human interest type piece. I need to find the stuff I found a while ago about community theater used for the same purpose (including if I remember correctly in refugee camps). I'll go look for it.

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  12. Too bad I discovered this website just yesterday. I could have used some of the insights in this post in my piece recently published in L'Autre Afrik, in which I discuss the recent murder of a young Congolese journalist in the city of Bukavu and the DRC government's liberticide decree to cut off RFI FM signal.

    As I point out in my article, Lambert Mende, the Congolese minister of Communication, ironically bases his decree on a law passed under Mobutu regulating media activities; while Mobutu himself referred to a colonial law on internal exile of the early 1920s to ban his opponents within the confines of their home villages (the opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi was time and again exiled to his village under this law).

    You state: "Because radio is how people get news in Congo. The population is largely illiterate so radio is how people find out what's going on."

    Short comments on this statement:
    1) Only a small fraction of Congolese speak French--those who went to school and who graduated at least from high school for example. You even correctly say that people are "largely illiterate".

    BTW, during the Cold War, Moscow Radio shortwave programs in Lingala offered an alternative to the propaganda of Mobutu's official radios... Too bad RFI hasn't thought about developing Lingala and Congolese Swahili alternatives to its French programs. Congo is a "sub-continent" in its own right after all...

    2)Kinshasa and Brazzaville are the two closest capitals in the world. So, for the Kinois, the decree is meaningless and only proves, if anything, that the communication minister and the government are foolish.

    3) Ditto in the eastern part of the Congo, especially in Bukavu and Goma where RFI FM signals could easily be monitored from the signals coming from neighboring cities in Rwanda.

    4) RFI also broadcasts in shortwaves. The government can't cut shortwave signals nor does it have the means of jamming them...

    5) Reporters Sans Frontieres reports that 3 radio stations in Northern Kivu that are RFI partners ignored the decree and continued retransmitting RFI FM signals. After being threatened by the National Intelligence Agency, two of them backed down while one still continues to rebroadcast.

    It's a shame for the Congolese government to squander the little international credibility it got left in this stupid standoff with Ghislaine Dupont, the RFI reporter banned from the Congo a few years ago, who has been turned into its bête noire.

    Whatever the government does, however, a Mobutu-like dictatorship would prove to be unsustainable: people are craving for their freedom and they'd even take up arms to defend it.

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