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Jammed radio signals raise concerns over media freedom in DRC

Democratic Republic Of Congo

Activists and rights groups have criticised the Democratic Republic of Congo’s crackdown on the media after two radio stations were taken off air last weekend, when an opposition protest against the government in Kinshasa was due to take place.

Authorities in DRC had banned the rally and police were out in force to prevent protesters against president Joseph Kabila from gathering.

Two of the most popular radio stations’ signals in the country remained jammed this week, a situation the United States and opposition groups have criticized as a blow to media freedom.

Radio France Internationale (RFI) and the United Nations-funded Radio Okapi have been unavailable since the morning of November 5, hours before a banned protest against President Joseph Kabila’s plan to stay in power beyond the end of his mandate this year.

According to the Central African country’s constitution, Kabila is due to step down when his second mandate ends on December 19. His ruling coalition and some opposition members have agreed to delay the vote until April 2018, citing a lack of preparation, but the main opposition bloc rejects the accord.

The United States said in a statement earlier in the week that it was “deeply troubled” by the radio signal outages, which it called a “government infringement on press freedoms and the Congolese people’s access to information”.

“We condemn the suspension of broadcasting of Radio Okapi, after its radio signal was jammed, and I would like to say that up until today, we still have not heard from the authorities regarding the interference. But I would like to say that this is a worrying situation, as well as a violation of press freedom and freedom of expression,” said MONUSCO spokesperson in DR Congo Felix Prospere Bassa at news conference on Wednesday.

The government has not commented on the outages, which France has also called “unacceptable”.

RFI is often cut off during protests, but outages usually last only one day and it is rare for other stations to be affected.

“I think that the radio signals should be reinstalled in order to allow the listeners to continue receiving information and on the administrative level, if RFI did not follow the rules, then they should have been given a formal warning and allow them to have time to review the rules and look into whether they violated any rules or not,” said DR Congo’s National Press Union president, Kasonga Tshilunde.

Since Burkina Faso’s long-ruling President Blaise Compaore was ousted in 2014 by mass protests against a bid to extend his mandate, African governments have occasionally shut off radio and internet during tense periods in order to quell opposition.

Many on the streets of the capital Kinshasa say they are concerned that suppressing media freedom may become a growing trend in their country as well.

“I don’t think that we will be well informed without RFI. It usually depends on the government, sometimes we are able to access the channel without problems, but sometimes when it’s broadcasting local news, then there is signal interference,” said one Kinshasa resident Carlos Bulezi.

“For me as a Congolese, not being able to listen to RFI is serious because it’s the only radio channel that gives reliable information. All the other local channels only talk about people, people that we don’t care about knowing and they don’t talk about information on what’s going on in the country. But with RFI, we are better informed on everything that’s going on in the country, so it’s not good,” added another Kinshasa resident Zongo Malobo.

Anti-Kabila protests in Congo have often turned violent and the United Nations says security forces killed at least 48 citizens during demonstrations in September.

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