Activists and journalists arrested, protests dispersed and banned

Police sit in a pickup vehicle in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2018, REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic via Gallo Images

Human rights groups raise concerns over regression on the respect for human rights under President Tshisekedi in 2020

There has been 'a serious downturn in respect for human rights' under President Félix Tshisekedi's administration in 2020, after some initial human rights improvements in 2019, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report published on 22nd July 2020. In the first six months of 2020, HRW documented at least 39 cases of harassment and threats in relation to the freedom of expression and media freedom. This includes the arrest of at least 11 people on charges of 'contempt toward officials'. Besides cracking down on government critics, political party members and journalists, authorities have also used the COVID-19 pandemic to suppress the freedom of peaceful assembly. Some cases documented by Human Rights Watch are mentioned in this update. Thomas Fessy of HRW said:

“President Tshisekedi should recognise that attacks on journalists and peaceful critics are an assault on democracy. Unless Tshisekedi stops resorting to his predecessor’s tools of repression, his assurances of respect for human rights will be nothing but empty promises.”

In the report 'Dismissed! Victims of 2015-2018 brutal crackdown denied justice in DRC', human rights group Amnesty International highlighted the inaction, lack of investigation and prosecution for the killings during anti-government protests between 2015 and 2018. At least 320 people were killed when authorities cracked down on these protests, with security forces using excessive force, including live ammunition. Under international pressure, three committees were set up under the administration of former president Kabila to investigate protest killings, none of which led to prosecutions. President Tshisekedi, who was inaugurated in January 2019 following presidential elections on 30th December 2018, has failed to fulfil pledges to fight impunity, ensure justice and strengthen the rule of law. Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International said:

“The demands of victims and their families for accountability for human rights violations cannot be wished away as inconveniences. President Felix Tshisekedi must acknowledge their suffering and break with past impunity to ensure justice is served.” 

Peaceful Assembly

Since March 2020, when the government issued a state of emergency in the context of COVID-19, protests and large gatherings have been banned. Security forces have used excessive force and cracked down on those protests that erupted, said Human Rights Watch.

On 21st July 2020, four LUCHA activists were reportedly detained during a protest to denounce the theft of street lamps in the village of Buchiro. According to Front Line Defenders, the four were held for four days and were released on 25th July 2020.

On 8th July 2020 in Lubumbashi, young supporters of Joseph Kabila's Parti du peuple pour la reconstruction et la démocratie (PPRD) and President Tshisekedi's Union pour la démocratie et le progrès social (UDPS) clashed, injuring several. Police officers reportedly intervened and fired warning shots.

Protests against the appointment of the new president of the national electoral commission (CENI)

In July 2020, several protests took place in different cities against the appoinment of Ronsard Malonda as the new president of CENI. On 9th July 2020, at least three people and one police officer were killed during protests in Kinshasa and Lubumbasi. Authorities banned all protests on grounds of the state of emergency due to COVID-19. In Kinshasa, one person was killed by live ammunition and a police officer was beaten to death by protesters. Police officers used tear gas to disperse protesters close to the National Assembly, and several protesters were reportedly arrested. Protesters reportedly burnt tyres and threw projectiles and Molotov cocktails, while police officers fired warning shots. Two people were killed in Lubumbashi. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), four UDPS members were found dead in Lubumbashi in the days after the protests, three of them floating in the Lubumbashi river showing signs of violence, according to witnesses. Sources also indicated to HRW that some protesters were held in military custody following the protests but no exact number is known, nor further information on what happened to them.

About 1,000 people protested on 19th July 2020 against the appointment of Ronsard Malonda in Kinshasa called by the Comité laïc de coordination (CLC). On 4th July 2020, a protest organised by CLC and citizen movements was dispersed, with police officers using tear gas, and some protesters were arrested, according to news reports


Journalist detained for 48 hours

Patrick Palata, a journalist for Tala Tala TV in Matadi (Kongo Central province) was detained for two days. He was arrested on 12th July 2020 in relation to a report on the killing of a woman in Boko, reportedly by a guard of the provincial governor. According to the media freedom organisation Observatoire de la Liberté de la Presse en Afrique (OLPA), Palata's camera was confiscated and returned to him when he was released but without the memory card containing recordings of the Boko incident.

Media violations in Sankuru and Mongala provinces

On 20th August 2020, military and police officers raided the premises of Radio Losanganya in Lodja in the province of Sankuru and arrested journalist Hubert Djoko and technician Albert Lokongo. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), Djoko and Lokongo were first taken to a stadium where the provincial governor, Joseph Mukumadi, was holding a meeting. The governor reportedly first threatened them, before the two media workers were taken to police headquarters in Lodja where they were tortured for several hours. The following day, Djoko and Lokongo were taken to the residence of the governor, tied up and left in the sun for the day while they were pressured into admitting they had been manipulated by former Minister of Information Lambert Mende, a political rival of Joseph Mukumadi and owner of Radio Losanganya. The editor of the radio station, François Lendo, was also arrested during the raid, but was released after a few hours. The premises of national television and radio station RTNC were raided on the same day and ordered to close until further notice.

In Mongala province, provincial authorities issued an order on 17th June 2020 demanding the immediate dismissal of six journalists and the suspension - from one to three months - of several other journalists. In addition, several programmes were suspended until further notice in order to 'restore lasting social peace in Mongala province in general and the territory of Bumba in particular'. According to RSF, the order targeted a total of 13 journalists and 5 privately owned radio stations. Journalist for Radio La Voix de Bumba Fabrice Ngani was detained on 26th May 2020 on the orders of the provincial governor and charged with defamation and 'insulting provincial authorities'. He was released on 4th June 2020 but is still facing charges. RSF commented:

"In the absence of any clear offence by the media outlets concerned, this order must be regarded as purely political in nature and as the latest episode in a crackdown on the media that Mongala’s governor launched several weeks ago. This is an extremely grave series of attacks on Congolese media and journalists of the kind that the country’s political authorities have pledged to prevent since the new president took office last year. If such harassment of media and journalists who are just doing their job is not urgently stopped, it will be impossible to realise the promised changes in defence of press freedom.”


Arrest, prosecution of HRDs

LUCHA activist and HRD Lucien Byamungu Munganga was arrested during a protest on 22nd July 2020 in Kalehe, in South Kivu province. According to Front Line Defenders, Byamungu Munganga's arrest was ordered by the customary authority In Kahele, Mwami Shosho Ntale Franck Kamirogosa IV. The protest was held that day to demand the release of four LUCHA activists who were detained during a protest a day earlier, on 21st July 2020 (see under Peaceful Assembly). The activist was charged with 'damaging claims', 'contempt of authority', 'extortion of signature' and 'usurpation of public office'.

Trade unionist and woman human rights defender Anne-Marie Mabo Elumba was detained on 6th June 2020 in Lubumbashi, said Front Line Defenders. Mabo Elumba, a member of the trade union Nouvelle Dynamique Syndicale, was arrested by judicial police during a protest organised by the trade union for reportedly having carried a sign with a message 'undermining the authority of the Prosecutor General'. The trade union was demonstrating against a recent decision by the Prosecutor General. The WHRD was charged with 'contempt of court' and was released on bail on 16th June 2020. She was placed under judicial supervision.

On 2nd June 2020, activist Espoir Miganda Mugisho was arrested in Goma after denouncing alleged criminality by police officers, according to HRW. The activist was accused of 'contempt of authority' and the killing of two police officers. He was reportedly beaten during his detention and was released on bail on 22nd June 2020. Max Nzinga, Patrick Ndoba, Olivier Akpaba, Mohamed Akwele and Christophe Tilombe - five members of local groups - were summoned for questioning on 16th July in Nord Ubangi province after they made a media statement criticising the governance of the province.

Release of HRD

Activist Joseph Bayoko Lokondo was released from prison on 9th July 2020 after an appeal court reduced his sentence from 13 months in prison to a six month suspended sentence. Joseph Bayoko Lokondo was arrested on 20th January 2020 and was sentenced in March to 13 months in prison for ‘contempt of a member of the government’ and ‘defamatory statements’ for having criticised the provincial governor.