Why Does the Democratic Republic of the Congo Keep Arresting Journalists?
Late Monday night, I received a call from a colleague in Kinshasa. He was in a state of agitation. “They took Steve Wembi,” he told me. “He was stopped at the hotel Léon and bundled into a white jeep without license plates.” Three people—his mother, his wife, and a journalist for Radio France Internationale—who went to look for him at the Léon were detained that evening by state security.
Wembi is one of the best-known journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a giant of a man with a broad, toothy smile. He has helped foreign journalists for years and has written articles for The New York Times on Ebola, rebellions in the east of the country, and the killing of UN officials, since at least 2017. He goes by the nickname of “Le Vieux Biométrique” or “Old Biometric.” If confirmed, his detention would be the 20th arbitrary detention of a journalist this year, according to an informal tally by the press freedom advocacy group NGO Reporters Sans Frontières.
In 2019, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo ascended to the DRC presidency. The Trump-era US government, despite widespread irregularities in the electoral process, decided to support the result of the election. To do anything else, the logic ran, would risk spiraling the country once more into a bloody civil war. After all, it was the first time in Congo’s postcolonial history that the country had changed leaders peacefully, and US officials hoped to be able to work with Tshisekedi on reversing Chinese influence in the country, combating corruption, and strengthening democracy. Congo is the source of many of the minerals used to make the batteries that are essential to the Green Revolution.
In the years since, however, Tshisekedi’s government has been marked by continued Chinese investment in the country (including the sale of a stake in the world’s largest Lithium mine to China’s Zijn Mining), fairly blatant corruption, and threats to delay the next election, which is scheduled for 2023. The president has also become more autocratic, stifling dissent and the country’s thriving, if anarchic, press. I should know: This summer, a colleague and I were the 18th and 19th journalists to be detained in Congo this year. On assignment for The Nation, I was taken by state security under eerily similar circumstances to Wembi, spent five and half days in detention, and was then deported from the country.
I was one of the lucky ones. Three journalists were tortured in Congolese security detention this year; Patrick Lola and Christian Bofaya, two journalists from the northern Equateur province, have been in jail since January for covering a protest; and a prosecutor asked a court to sentence Chilassy Bofumbo to three years of prison on unproven charges this summer (he was acquitted and released after seven months in July). A reprisal of hostilities by the rebel M23 militia in the country’s east, which the UN has said is equipped and supported by neighboring Rwand, has given Tshisekedi the excuse to crack down even further.
“Since the beginning of the year,” the UN’s human rights bureau in the country tweeted on October 25, “more and more journalists covering the news in DRC have been targeted with arrest by the intelligence services.” This is all the more bitterly ironic because Tshisekedi’s father, Étienne, was a pro-democracy opposition leader who was arrested several times during the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
Since his disappearance, Congolese authorities have claimed that Steve Wembi is not in their custody. (They also denied that they had taken me, at first, when the US Embassy inquired as to my whereabouts.) The communications minister, Patrick Muyaya, has claimed that Wembi was sought by the authorities but that he has gone “into hiding,” and rumors have swirled that he was kidnapped or that he has gone to ground to avoid arrest.
The experience of the three people who went to look for him at the Léon (they were released by state security later that night, after being held for around four hours at a government detention facility known as 3 Zulu), as well as the testimony of Wembi’s driver (who said he was shocked with a stun baton as Wembi was arrested) suggests that Wembi has in fact been taken by the government. The RFI journalist claims that a large amount of money was taken from him. On Friday, I reached Wembi’s brother, Miscaden Wembi Lomango, who told me the denials were a tactic to obscure the truth. “They don’t want people knowing what happened to Steve,” he said. “There is almost no freedom of the press under this regime.”
“The Congolese authorities must not only shed light on Steve Wembi’s abduction and say exactly what has happened to him, but they must also do whatever is necessary to have him released immediately,” Sadibou Marong, the director of RSF’s sub-Saharan Africa bureau, said in a statement.
Benoit Nyemba, a Kinshasa-based journalist who has worked with Reuters, said, “Journalists here are all worried. Journalists are always being threatened. Under the last government, at least when you were taken in you would be able to tell people where you were.” It’s worth noting that enforced disappearances are a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute, which governs the International Criminal Court and to which the DRC is a signatory.
As to why Wembi might have been taken, there is no shortage of theories. Shortly before his disappearance, he was at a press conference where Muyaya, the communications minister, complained about an international journalist who had circulated audio recordings of soldiers fighting against the M23 militia. Wembi has commented at length on the conflict on his social media, and is supportive of Joseph Kabila, the country’s former president.
For the moment, Wembi’s family are in a state of suspended animation. His brother, who is a lawyer in the eastern city of Bukavu, told me they were terrified that he would be killed and they didn’t know what to do. “They could arrest someone at home. Why did they fix a meeting and take him at night? We are afraid that the worst has happened,” he said. When I asked him what he meant by that, he replied, “We don’t want to, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, to find the body of my big brother, dead.”