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.

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