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Censorship, self-censorship greatest threats to press freedom in 2008, says JED

(JED/IFEX) - The following is an abridged 23 December 2008 JED press release:

JED releases 2008 report on press freedom in DR Congo

Censorship, self-censorship greatest threats to press freedom

Amid commemorative ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as its own 10th anniversary, JED released its 2008 annual report on press freedom on 23 December 2008.

In the report, entitled "Ten years for press freedom: the situation of freedom of the press in Central Africa", JED notes that safety remains the single greatest concern for media professionals in the DRC, despite the fact that statistically, attacks against the press and journalists are down.

The decline, however, is more likely attributable to censorship and self-editing on the part of journalists, rather than any improvement to the country's press laws or an end to the impunity that journalists' killers usually enjoy. One journalist was killed in eastern DRC in 2008 while scores of others were arrested or subjected to various pressures by the broadcast regulator (Haute Autorité des Médias - HAM). Such incidents have combined to create a climate of fear among members of the profession, with many journalists now reluctant to cover more "sensitive" stories.

JED documented 110 press freedom violations across the country in 2008, compared to 163 for the previous year, representing a 33% drop. This quantitative improvement came at the expense of a general deterioration in the quality of news reporting, however.

For the fourth consecutive year, at least one journalist was killed in 2008. Didace Namujimbo, a reporter for Bukavu-based Radio Okapi, was gunned down on 21 November. He is the second journalist from the station to be killed for his reporting and the sixth to be killed in the country since 2005.

Prison sentences continue to be handed down to journalists for press infractions. Nsimba Embete Ponte, a reporter for the weekly "L'Interprète", is currently serving a 10 month term in Kinshasa's CPRK prison (Centre pénitentiaire et de rééducation de Kinshasa) after being held secretly for three months by intelligence forces. He is charged with "insulting a head of state." His colleague, Davin Ntondo, was released in November after serving 9 months in prison.

At least 17 journalists were assaulted in the course of their work, according to JED, while another 17 were the victims of serious threats or harassment. Twenty-three journalists or media outlets reported incidents of administrative, financial or judicial pressure. Among these JED notes in particular the case of 12 RTLN (state-run television) journalists who were suspended in November by RTLN's management board for "belonging to a subversive organisation within the company". The journalists drew the ire of management after they aired images of a peace rally organised by Congolese-Belgians in Brussels in which protestor's signs calling for the resignation of the Congolese president Joseph Kabila were clearly visible. The suspension order was lifted two weeks later on the orders of the communications ministry.

JED also documented five cases where access to information was blocked, including the closure of Molière TV and of the community radio station RACOU (Radio Communautaire Ushirika) in the country's eastern region. RACOU's offices were also looted by CNDP (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple) rebels, according to witnesses.

Finally, in the face of renewed hostilities in the east, the media regulator, HAM, issued a statement on 10 October barring media outlets from broadcasting "news that has not been confirmed by official sources and that is likely to demoralise national troops."

The preceding list of violations leads JED to conclude that the media is respected only when it offers praise for those in power but quickly loses favour when it criticises or denounces the numerous flaws of a country only too well-known for its corruption and injustice.

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