KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – “I’m going to kill you,” the text message read.
After more than two decades as a prominent political journalist in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Solange Kwale has gotten used to receiving death threats – especially in the runup to elections.
“I usually don’t take them seriously,” she says. “People use disposable SIM cards or fake social media accounts to threaten you.”
Kwale hosts Mpifo, the first political show in DRC in Lingala – a national language spoken by a large percentage of the country’s 77 million people – instead of French, the language of the educated elite, which is used for much of the country’s political coverage. After President Joseph Kabila won the elections in 2006, government forces raided Kwale’s offices because, she believes, she had invited opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba on her TV show. After she received a tip-off from a friend about the raid, Kwale went into hiding for two months.
“I was so afraid. I felt like a prisoner in my own country,” she says. “I still don’t know who exactly ordered my arrest, but maybe it’s best not to know.” She only returned after friends with connections to Kabila’s government assured her that she was safe – the president no longer considered her a threat.
The veteran journalist is uncertain about what to expect in the coming months, but she knows it won’t be good. Kabila’s constitutional mandate, which limits leaders to two presidential terms, expired in December. According to the Congo Research Group at New York University, over 74 percent of Congolese want Kabila out of office. Elections scheduled for November 2016 were pushed back to December 2017, and the government is continuing its crackdown on protesters and censoring of the media.
The DRC’s targeting of journalists is well documented. According to Reporters Without Borders, the country ranks 152 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, a rating that has fallen every year since 2002. “Congo is probably one of the toughest places on the planet for journalists to work,” says Tom O’Bryan, a Congo analyst and researcher at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights. For female journalists, the job is harder still. While there are no gender-specific statistics available, DRC has a history of female journalists being threatened and harassed during periods of political turmoil.
During the M23 Rebellion in 2012, when rebel armed groups clashed with government forces in North Kivu, the province’s governor, Julien Paluku, allegedly threatened Radio Okapi journalist Gisele Kaj Kaung. He accused her of bias and of consorting with rebels after the radio station she worked for broadcasted a field report containing interviews with locals in rebel-held areas.
Three weeks before the 2011 presidential elections, riot police assaulted CMC TV journalist Nathalie Kalombo as she was covering a mass demonstration in Kinshasa, leaving her with cuts and bruises. After covering an opposition party meeting in Kasa-Vubu, Mireille Kanzoka and Tania Mulenda, two female trainee journalists at Radio Okapi, were interrogated by police and had their equipment seized.
And in South Kivu in 2009, three female journalists received anonymous death threats via text messages. Kadi Adzuba and Delphine Namuto of Radio Okapi and Jolly Kamuntu from Radio Maendeleo were all warned they would receive “a bullet in the head” for covering political issues, or “meddling in what does not concern you.”
When Kwale went into exile, she kept her location a secret, even from her own family. Women journalists in the DRC are usually either single mothers or the breadwinners in their family, a fact the government uses to pressure its targets into silence, say advocates. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was hiding,” says Kwale. “I was worried my family would be threatened and forced to give away my hiding place.”
Sexual violence is another worry for female journalists, especially those who are jailed. According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 women have been raped since 1998, earning DRC a reputation as “the rape capital of the world.” Paulette Kimuntu was covering the peace deal summits in 2002 for several news outlets when she was detained. “The police didn’t care that I am a woman, and I was worried what would happen to me,” she says.
Kimuntu was released unharmed several hours later, but only after what she describes as an interrogation by two “aggressive” police officers, who also confiscated her recording equipment and cellphone. “I received the baptism of fire, as we say,” she says.
Despite the dangers, anecdotal evidence says the number of women in media is growing in DRC. But most are pushed to cover lighter topics such as entertainment and social issues, often from behind a desk. “We find fewer female journalists reporting on the ground,” says Tshivis Tshivuadi, the general secretary of nonprofit group Journalist in Danger, before adding, “but I think women are more fragile than men.”
Even with the risks that women face when they report on politics in DRC, Kwale, who is one of the only female editors-in-chief in the country, says she won’t be intimidated. “You have to be engaged and a bit patriotic to work in political journalism,” she says. “I know the risks, but if I do my job well, it will be safer for the next generation.”
This story was reported with the support of an African Great Lakes Fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.