January 23, 2001
Civil society under threat in the DR Congo
When Bertin Salumu and two colleagues from the non-governmental "Campaign for Peace" in Kinshasa made a call for a non-violent protest march for peace and against "dictatorship", the reaction of the Congolese government was harsh. On 10 January Bertin Salumu, Norbert Kahumbu and Professor Muteba were arrested and taken to the ANR (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, National Security Service), and accused of inciting rebellion against the government. Their declaration accused the government of President Kabila as well as the forces opposed to it, of blocking the peace process deliberately and seeking economic benefit from their offices. While attention is on President Kabila's death, the three men remain in detention
Bertin Salumu and his colleagues number among the few activists of civil society and the church who play an essential role in independently investigating, denouncing and publicizing human rights abuses against civilians. They pressure military and civilian authorities to improve human rights conditions and they follow cases of persons whose rights might have been abused. They conduct public awareness activities both at grassroots level and through the broadcast media. And they also provide practical support to victims of abuses and give legal assistance. Although urban-based, many human rights groups have developed a grassroots structure and have won support and members in rural areas and poor sectors of towns.
Against harsh odds, civil society has maintained a strong and independent voice during the more than two years of war that has pitted Kabila and his supporters, the governments of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia against three major rebel groups and their Rwandan and Ugandan backers. Several armed groups in eastern Congo, including the Mayi Mayi, the Burundian rebel group known as Forces for the Defence of Democracy, and remnants of the former Rwandan army and militia responsibel for the Rwandan genocide have also fought the rebel movements associated with Rwanda and Uganda, sometimes in alliance with Kabila's forces. Dozens of human rights organizations, development and peace associations, and churches throughout the country denounce human rights violations by all parties to the war. Both Kabila and the rebels have harassed civil society groups which they regularly accuse of supporting the "enemy".
Civil society under President Kabila
Kabila's government has arrested journalists, human rights activists, and critics of the government, sometime detaining them for prolonged periods.
Three journalists were arrested, tried by the Military Order Court, and jailed for several months before being released in December 2000. Freddy Loseke, editor of the journal "La Libre Afrique" (Free Africa) was found guilty of "insulting the army" for publishing two articles affirming that a plan was being prepared to topple Kabila. Emile Aime Kakese, editor of "Le Carousel" (The Carousel), and Jean Pierre Mukuna, editor of "La Tribune de la Nation" (The National Tribune) were detained for "high treason" and "publication of articles hostile to the government." The Military Order Court provides no right to appeal and was frequently used to punish outspoken critics of the government.
Journalists have also been attacked in apparent assassination attempts as well as frequently threatened, often by soldiers. On 22 December, for example, military set fire to the house of Marcel Ngoyi Kyenge who works for the newspaper "L'Avenir."
The Congolese government has repeatedly banned independent radio and TV stations or otherwise blocked them in their work. On 10 January, the Congolese government decreed that radios and TV stations must not report on a church peace initiative launched by the archbishop of Kinshasa.
Kabila's government also targeted non-governmental associations. Authorities arrested Felicien Malanda and Georges Kazimbika, leaders of the Regional Council of Nongovernmental Development Organizations (CRONGD), and detained them for several weeks in May 2000 on unsubstantiated charges they were in contact with the rebels.
On 12 December 2000 Janine Mukanirwa, a women's rights activist from eastern Congo, was arrested in Kinshasa and accused of "inciting desertion." She reportedly sought to help her younger brother, a soldier in Kabila's army, evade arrest. At the time the government was arresting a number of citizens from eastern Congo who were suspected of sympathizing with the rebellion.
The government has blocked the participation of civil society groups in the inter-Congolese dialogue, which was supposed to bring together the government, rebels and civil society to negotiate a transition to democracy. In early June 2000, the government prevented representatives of civil society and the political opposition from leaving the capital to attend preparatory talks for the inter-Congolese dialogue in Cotonou, Benin. The recent arrest of Bertin Salumu, Norbert Kahumbu and Professor Muteba from "Campaign for Peace" was also related to their declaration in support of the inter-Congolese dialogue and their criticism of the government's attitude towards the peace process.
Civil society in the rebel-held areas
In areas controlled by the Rwandan army and their local rebel allies, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), human rights activists, church leaders and other independent voices have not been treated any better. The authorities often accuse their leaders in general terms of inciting ethnic hatred, but they never prosecuted specific cases. The archbishop of Bukavu, Mgr. Emmanuel Kataliko, was banished to his home town for eight months in 2000 because he had preached a sermon at Christmas 1999 criticizing the RCD and its ally, the Rwandan government, of being foreign forces which are exploiting the resources of the country. In a 7 November letter to international organizations, the governor of South Kivu accused civil society of preparing a genocide together with former members of the Rwandan army and militia, often called Interahamwe.
RCD authorities have summoned, arrested, threatened and ill-treated several leading human rights activists. Shortly before and after International Women's Day on 8 March 2000, they called in women's rights activists who had organized an event to mark the women's grieving for their husbands and relatives killed in the war. RCD authorities threatened Zita Kavungirwa and pressured the employer of Marie-Jeanne Mbachu into suspending her from her job. In April, Rwandan security forces arrested Bruno Bahati, a leading member of the Coordination of Civil Society in South Kivu, on the Rwandan-Ugandan border after finding a Kinshasa newspaper in his possession. He was detained in Kigali and then transferred to Goma where he was released only after several weeks. On 9 October, RCD soldiers broke up a meeting held by human rights groups, beat the activists up publicly and then took them to a military detention centre. The activists were meeting to discuss regional networking and the recent visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
There are no independent media in the Rwandan-controlled areas of the DRC. The only independent radio station, Radio Maendeleo, has been banned for more than a year because it broadcast political news despite a prohibition to do so.
The work of civil society for peace and human rights is one of the hopes for the DRC, and all parties to the DRC conflict must respect their freedom of expression and assembly.