RNW works together with correspondents around the world. Some of these journalists work in countries where press freedom is severely restricted. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s not just the state authorities who hamper reporters, but anyone who feels he/she has some sort of power. And a journalist is a good target for anyone wanting to fill his/her own pocket.
By Elles van Gelder, Kinshasa
Four guys surround us in the busy market in the heart of Kinshasa in the DRC. “Market police”, they shout. They try to grab our camera. “We are in charge here and you are not allowed to shoot.” They push me, and the photographer I work with, into a container. We look around, it’s a make-shift office. The market boss is behind his desk. His staff block the door. There is no way to escape.
Last year the organisation Journalist in Danger (JED) - a partner of Reporters Without Borders - recorded the murder of one journalist in the DRC along with 42 arrests, 57 cases of threats or assault, 43 cases of censorship or restrictions on the flow of information and 17 cases of pressure on news media. JED called on the government to put an end to the growing crackdown on the media. The tension was at its worst in the run-up to last November’s elections.
I am not at the market to do any political coverage. We are here to take photos illustrating the economic struggle of the Congolese. Stall holders are busy scooping washing powder, salt and sugar into small plastic bags. The quantities are getting smaller and smaller because people can afford less and less. You can even buy one spoon of sugar or half of a cookie if you can’t afford a whole one.
We show the men our journalist accreditation from the Ministry of Information and explain that we are allowed to do our work. They deny this. This is their territory; there are different rules, we have to pay. We have heard that story before. Everywhere you go you first need to negotiate with whoever feels he is in charge; or whoever feels they can make money out of you. I am happy we made the effort to get Congolese media accreditation. This makes our position stronger. Every time we get away by threatening to call the state authorities. But we loose valuable time and energy.
It makes me realise that it is not just the suppression by ‘real’ authorities that hampers the free flow of information in the DRC and how journalists can work, but also the entrenched corruption at all levels of society. Although there are several African countries that are far worse if it comes down to media freedom, like Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, the DRC is one of the most corrupt. If you don’t pay, you might not get a story. You may not get into a venue, be able to wander around a suburb or talk to a person you want to interview.
But paying is unacceptable. I’d rather keep talking and convince these extortionists I am not an easy target. I don’t give in until they realise it’s going to take too much time and energy to get from me what they wanted quickly. I try to convince interviewees that telling their story is important and that as a journalist I can’t pay, because then people will tell me lies and nonsense just to get the money. It is not an easy thing to explain, especially when working in poor areas or places where there have been journalists who were willing to pay.
An hour passes and it is getting rather hot in the Kinshasa market container. The market ‘authorities’ keep on pushing us for money. We are getting a bit anxious, stuck there by ourselves. We tell them we will hand over our footage instead of paying them. We use an old trick in the journalism book by quickly changing the memory cards. We dramatically throw an empty card down onto the desk and act frustrated that we must do this. But of course that’s not what they want. They are not ‘protecting’ the market but their own pockets. The footage is not enough.
I take my cell phone out of my pocket and start dialling. I speak Dutch to a line that is not ringing. ‘Who are you speaking to?’ ‘The Dutch embassy to help us out,’ I bluff. Their faces turn red. They demand I hang up and push us out of the container into the bustling market. They escort us out of their premises. We walk away from the market stalls with the story in the bag.
Next up, is a visit to the sport stadium where the famous boxing match Rumble in the Jungle was held. At the door we are stopped. ‘Your accreditation doesn’t count, you need stadium accreditation, says a guy at the door. ‘This will cost you.’ We go in and the game starts all over again.