Updated: February 28, 2021
President Felix Tshisekedi’s administration in the Democratic Republic of Congo has increasingly cracked down on the media and activist groups during its two years in office, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. Despite some initial steps to advance a human rights agenda, the government has threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and prosecuted several dozen journalists, activists, and others deemed critical of the government.
“People in Congo shouldn’t have to fear harassment or arrest for criticizing or peacefully protesting government policy,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Two years on, Tshisekedi’s commitments to respecting rights are starting to sound like broken promises.”
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Human Rights Watch interviewed 83 people by phone between January 2020 and January 2021, including victims of abuse, lawyers, activists, and journalists. The researchers found at least 109 cases of arbitrary arrests and harassment over the past year. Many victims were journalists, who faced intimidation, threats, and sometimes beatings. Intelligence agents from the National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignements or ANR) were involved in at least 16 cases.
In the most recent case, eight young pro-democracy activists from the citizen movement Lucha were detained for one month in the northeastern town of Beni after participating in a December 19 march calling for peace in the area and denouncing the lack of civilian protection. They faced 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges of “sabotage and violence against state security guards.”
“They took us to a room [at the police station] and sat us on the floor,” one of the activists told Human Rights Watch. “Police who were outside but close to the window fired teargas into the room. We had no choice but to try to escape. I don’t know how but some of us managed to open the door. I fainted once outside.”
Following a public outcry, a military court acquitted them on January 20.
On August 20, in Lodja, in the central province of Sankuru, soldiers and the police stormed the office of the privately owned Radio Losanganya and arrested Hubert Djoko, a journalist, and Albert Lokongo, a radio technician, accusing them of supporting the governor’s longstanding political rival. They took them to the stadium where the governor was speaking.
“They whipped us and had us repeat what we said on air,” said Djoko. “The governor then gave the order to take us to the police station. In the morning, the governor sent two motorcycles to parade us across town to show we had been arrested while his supporters shouted: ‘We must kill them!’” Djoko and Lokongo said they were both beaten in custody. They were accused of incitement to tribal hatred and civil disobedience, and released on August 22. On September 16, their editor, François Lendo, was also arrested and detained for 11 days on charges of “contempt for the governor.”
In Kinshasa, on November 16, the intelligence services arrested a popular singer, Elisabeth Tshala Muana, a longtime member of former president Joseph Kabila’s political party, and detained her for 24 hours following the release of her single “Ingratitude.” She was accused of targeting Tshisekedi, though no names were featured in the song. The authorities banned her song from the airwaves.
The crackdown over the past year is in stark contrast with Tshisekedi’s first year in office, which was marked by a significant decline in political repression compared with Joseph Kabila’s administration, Human Rights Watch said. In 2019, Tshisekedi released most political prisoners, and Congolese living in exile were allowed to return to the country. However, security forces did arbitrarily detain and beat peaceful protesters in some instances during that year.
Few security and intelligence officials implicated in human rights abuses under former President Joseph Kabila were held to account, and many continue to hold positions of authority. Impunity for past repression only fuels the continuation of the same abusive tactics, Human Rights Watch said.
Congo’s human rights minister, André Lite, told Human Rights Watch by phone that he “once again, condemn[ed] these rights violations…. Whereas freedom should be the principle and detention the exception, we tend to make arrest before investigating in Congo and, unfortunately, detention has become the rule. When a state official, whatever their rank, is responsible for an assault on freedom, they must be questioned and prosecuted.”
The Congolese government is obligated under international human rights law to respect and uphold the right of everyone in the country to peacefully protest and freely receive and disseminate all types of information. Regional and international partners should press Congo to protect the rights to peaceful expression and assembly.
The authorities should end the harassment of journalists and media outlets and drop all charges against those held for exercising their basic rights. Congo ranked among the world’s 30 worst countries violating press freedom in 2020, according to the World Press Freedom Index, despite Tshisekedi’s pledge to advance the media into “a real fourth estate.” The government should also repeal criminal defamation laws and take concrete measures to protect journalists in line with regional and international human rights standards.
Tshisekedi should be outspoken in defense of human rights and take action against provincial governors who seek to punish those critical of their policies. Intelligence agents and other security personnel should fully comply with international human rights standards relating to arrest, detention, and due process. Military courts should not try civilians. When serious violations occur, the authorities should promptly and impartially investigate and take appropriate disciplinary or legal action against those responsible, regardless of position or rank.
“Two years into the new administration, the crackdown on free speech and peaceful protest is intensifying,” Fessy said. “Congo’s international partners should publicly and privately raise concerns about escalating repression in the country with the president and his advisers.”