Up close with Journaliste en danger
I’m at the IFEX business meeting and the Crown Plaza Hotel setting, the well-ordered agenda and calm discussion are all good. But the spirit of what’s really going on here lives in the intense gaze that sits above the ready smile of Congolese journalist Tshivis Tshivuadi.
Somewhere else on the planet, destiny might have had a softer life in mind for the talented professional who went from j-school to editor of the largest Khinsasa daily in less than a decade back in the 90s. Hopes were high when he started the job just after the cleptocrat-dictator Mobutu got booted out of Zaire in 1997 and a new leader was promising to earn the country’s recovered name, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The back-tracking on that promise was swift. Another long cycle of repression was about to begin and Tshivuadi became one of the first victims of the new dictator. After a critical article denouncing the raising of tribal armies, Tshivuadi’s publisher was thrown in jail and he was forced to head underground right away. It was a dark period with no contact with family or friends. Tshivuadi felt completely abandoned and alone. Eventually his publisher was released and Tshivuadi was able to return. He immediately gathered a group of friends and in 1998, they launched Journaliste en Danger, committing to the mission that no case of threats, imprisonment or death against journalists would go unreported. His group have continued monitoring and defending press freedom and facing down the authorities ever since. By the next year, Journaliste en Danger had become a member of IFEX and he says that international relationship is what gave his org the clout to be heard. “By joining IFEX, we gained respect and credibility,” he says. “It makes our enemies cautious.”
But until recently, there were still many attacks. JED staff were targeted with death threats and they went into hiding repeatedly – never knowing how long it would last or what would happen.
Officials regularly accuse his organization of representing Western interests and acting against the state by selling a poor image of the country.
A year ago, a well-known human rights activist and a good friend was killed while in custody. This was the one person that had helped Tshivuadi find his way when he was forced underground. His death had a chilling effect.
Unlike past years, there are currently no journalists in jail in the Congo, Tshivuadi explains. But not because measures are in place to guarantee against impunity. Instead, newspapers have stopped reporting on corruption and violence.
“They stay out of trouble. Because of gross repression and the will to survive, journalists have ceased to play the role of watchdog. The national and local media have lost all credibility with the population,” he says. People got to international sources to find out what’s going on. But none of this is stopping Tshivuadi from the pleasure of a coffee break chat at the conference here in Beirut. And it isn’t stopping his work when he gets back home either.