Cameroon

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right, explicitly or implicitly.

Freedom of Expression: Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy. Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals. On several occasions, the government invoked laws requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse. Many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty when obtaining approval to organize public gatherings.

In the early hours of February 23, police surrounded CRM headquarters in the Odza neighborhood of Yaounde and the New-Deido in Douala to prevent prospective activists from registering with the party. In other cities, such as Bafoussam and Mbouda in the West Region, security forces disrupted the registration process and arrested CRM activists. In Bafoussam, police seized CRM’s campaign truck and detained it along with its driver. On April 30, Zacheus Bakoma, the divisional officer for Douala 5, ordered a 90-day provisional closure of the Mtieki community hall after the CRM used the hall as a venue for a meeting on April 28.

Press and Media, including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed diverse views. This landscape, however, included restrictions on editorial independence, in part due to stated security concerns related to the fight against Boko Haram, the Anglophone crisis, and the postelectoral crisis. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters. According to the 2018 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, the re-election of President Biya for a seventh term of office was accompanied by multiple instances of intimidation, attacks, and arrests of journalists.

Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists for their reporting. Journalists were arrested in connection with their reporting on the Anglophone crisis. According to reports by multiple organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), police arrested Pidgin news anchor Samuel Wazizi, who worked for the Buea-based independent station Chillen Muzik and Television. The arrest occurred on August 2 in Buea, Southwest Region. Police initially held Wazizi at the Buea police station and subsequently handed him over to the military, who detained him on August 7 without access to his lawyer or family. As of late November, he was presumed to still be in detention.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Under a 1990 law, the Ministry of Communication requires editors to submit two signed copies of their newspapers within two hours after publication. Journalists and media outlets reported practicing self-censorship, especially if the National Communication Council (NCC) had suspended them previously. In February the NCC issued a press release calling on journalists to be professional in their publications. The release was in reaction to media coverage following the January 26 protests called for by CRM, the arrests of hundreds of activists, including Maurice Kamto, and the ransacking of the Cameroonian embassy in Paris by anti-President Biya protesters. The NCC chairman indicated that the government had informed all professional media about the facts through official procedures and regretted that some press organizations continued to spread opinion contrary to government’s position, thereby maintaining confusion.

At its 23rd ordinary session, the NCC issued warning notices in 21 media regulation cases. The charges stated that the groups engaged in practices contrary to professional ethics, social cohesion, and national integration.

In a July 20 meeting with 100 private media outlet managers, Minister of Communications Rene Sadi chided Cameroon’s private media for abandoning its duty to “inform, educate, and entertain” by publishing articles that “sowed divisiveness and promoted tribalism.” He accused the private press of “playing politics under the influence of journalistic cover.” As of year’s end, no private television or radio station held a valid broadcasting license. Although the few that could afford the licensing fee made good-faith efforts to obtain accreditation, the ministry had not issued or renewed licenses since 2007. The high financial barriers coupled with bureaucratic hurdles rendered Cameroonian private media’s very existence illegal.

Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is constrained by libel laws that authorize the government to initiate a criminal suit when the president or other senior government officials are the alleged victims. These laws place the burden of proof on the defendant, and crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines.

National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government. During a security meeting in Douala on August 9, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji called on the representatives of NGOs and media professionals to be responsible, contribute their own quota to nation building, and avoid derogatory language that discredits government actions. Atanga Nji said many media houses in Douala organized weekly debates in order to sabotage government actions and promote secessionist tendencies. He urged private media organizations to exercise responsibility when carrying out their activities, warning them to construct, not destroy, the nation. He called on opposition political parties to respect the law and not to force his hand to suspend them. The minister also warned NGOs to respect the contract they signed with his ministry or be suspended.

Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that separatist groups in the Southwest and Northwest Regions sought to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. In an August 13 online post, Moki Edwin Kindzeka, a Yaounde-based journalist, said it was becoming impossible for journalists to practice their profession, because they faced pressure from both separatist fighters and the government. The article was in reaction to Atanga Nji’s August 9 statements.

No credible reports indicated that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government occasionally disrupted access to the internet.

Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, some school authorities reportedly sanctioned academic personnel for their teaching on politically sensitive topics, and administrative officials often deterred teachers from criticizing the government.

On March 5, Jean-Pierre Voundi Abondo, the principal of Yaounde’s Government Bilingual High School Mendong, suspended Felix Ningue from his duties as a philosophy teacher. Ningue reportedly proposed an abstract from Maurice Kamto’s 1993 book entitled LUrgence de la Pensee (The Urgency of Thought), as one of the topics for student discussion in an examination on February 17. In an interview on Canal 2 television channel, Voundi said the school was apolitical and that he asked Ningue to stop teaching pending an investigation.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Although the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government often restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies, nor does it authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it did not approve in advance. Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assemblies. The government often refused to grant permits for gatherings and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits. Authorities typically cited security concerns as the basis for deciding to block assemblies.

On January 26, in Yaounde, Douala, Bafoussam, and other cities across the country, police arrested several dozen CRM activists who participated in a rally to denounce electoral irregularities in the October 2018 presidential election, the ongoing crisis in the two Anglophone regions, and poor management of infrastructure projects associated with the 2019 African Cup of Nations. The CRM notified authorities in advance of the protests but did not receive authorization. Security forces, in response, used excessive force against demonstrators. According to Amnesty International, more than one hundred protesters were arrested in Douala, Yaounde, Dschang, Bafoussam, and Bafang. Approximately 50 were released the following day, and the remainder were transferred to Yaounde and placed under administrative custody. Seven persons were shot and injured in the city of Douala, including lawyer Michele Ndoki, while other protesters were beaten. Communication Minister Rene Emmanuel Sadi denied the use of live ammunition against protesters, but social media contradicted that account with videos of gunfire in Douala and a member of the riot police firing a rubber bullet at close range into the leg of a peaceful protester.

On April 5, Minister of Territorial Administration Atanga Nji issued a press release prohibiting all meetings or public events by the CRM. Days later, on April 13, the party initiated a series of meetings throughout the country to demand the immediate release of Maurice Kamto, who by that time had been imprisoned for more than two months. The CRM also aimed to denounce “the selective modification of the electoral code” and the mismanagement of the funds dedicated to infrastructure projects associated with the 2019 African Cup of Nations, which was to be hosted by Cameroon before being ultimately awarded to Egypt. The CRM unsuccessfully appealed the ministry’s decision.

The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the law also limits this right. On the recommendation of the prefet, the Ministry of Territorial Administration may suspend the activities of an association for three months on grounds that the association is disrupting public order. The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security. National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the ministry, but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations, and the president must accredit religious groups upon the recommendation of the Minister of Territorial Administration. The law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association without ministry approval. The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.

Conditions for recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.

During the year the government did not ban any organizations. The Ministry of Territorial Administration, however, regularly used threats of suspension on the heads of political parties and NGOs. At a press conference after the January 26 CRM protests, Minister Atanga Nji indicated that the ministry had the right to take certain precautionary measures, meaning the CRM’s suspension. A number of observers stated that political motivations were evident in the government’s selective application of the law.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, at times the government restricted these rights. Growing concerns over the entry of armed groups into Cameroon from the Central African Republic (CAR) and the conflict with Boko Haram in the Far North Region appeared to have prompted the government to adopt a more restrictive approach to refugee movement. The government made it more difficult for refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons to move freely in the country.

In some instances, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government sometimes failed to respect its obligations under relevant international laws. There were instances where it forcibly returned asylum seekers to their countries and did not readily provide humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations access to asylum seekers before refouling them.

In-country Movement: Using minor infractions as a pretext, police and gendarmes at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways often extorted bribes and harassed travelers. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures. Unaccompanied women were frequently harassed when traveling alone. Authorities restricted movements of persons and goods, including motorbikes, especially in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, citing security concerns. Armed Anglophone separatists also restricted the movements of persons and goods in the two Anglophone regions, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to harass and intimidate the local population. Humanitarian organizations cited difficulty in accessing certain areas and in some instances were harassed and denied passage by government authorities.

On June 14, Governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique of the Northwest Region lifted the curfew placed in the region since November 2018. The curfew, which lasted eight months, restricted movement of persons and property in the Northwest Region between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Evolving civil unrest and violence in Northwest and Southwest Regions continued to spur population displacement. According to OCHA, an estimated 710,000 individuals were displaced in Littoral, Northwest, Southwest, and West Regions. In addition, UNHCR estimated that more than 44,000 Cameroonian refugees were in southeastern Nigeria. An August 26 announcement by an armed separatist group on social media imposed a restriction of movement on all persons and closure of businesses starting September 2 for three weeks. This led to a further exodus of persons from the Northwest and Southwest Regions. Even prior to the announcement, relief agencies estimated that more than 2,800 persons fled the two regions to seek refuge in the Littoral and West, and an additional 879 individuals crossed the border into Nigeria between August 1 and 20.

As of September 30, the displaced population in the Far North Region was 488,418, including 271,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 106,418 refugees, and 111,000 returnees, in part driven from their homes by attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR.

The government did not put in place mechanisms to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs in the Far North Region. Provision of basic social services to IDPs and assistance to returnees have been carried out by relief actors with minimal support from the government. In the Northwest and Southwest Regions, the government did not manage any efforts to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian actors to deliver aid to persons in need. Its actions were focused on blocking the delivery of aid to show that there is no humanitarian crisis in these regions. Although it made some effort to provide urgently needed in-kind assistance to crisis affected IDPs in the Northwest and Southwest based on its Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, this assistance was distributed to populations without an assessment of their needs and only to persons in accessible areas, especially in regional capital cities.

f. Protection of Refugees

According to UNHCR and government estimates, the country hosted 403,208 refugees and 9,435 asylum seekers as of September 30. The refugee population included 291,803 CAR nationals, 108,335 Nigerians, and 1,599 Chadians. The remaining refugee population hailed from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, and the Republic of Congo.

In principle, Cameroon operates an open-door policy and has ratified the major legal instruments for refugee protection, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. These commitments were not translated into a progressive legal framework allowing refugees their rights as stated in various legal instruments.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cited other concerns, including security and suspicion of criminal activity, to justify arbitrary arrests and detention of refugees and asylum seekers. The government at times cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: The government stated there was no official policy of forcibly repatriating refugees. On January 16, however, Cameroon forcefully returned 267 Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram to northeast Nigeria. In a February 27 statement, Medicins Sans Frontieres stated Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities ordered 40,000 refugees in Cameroon to return to northeast Nigeria and expressed concern over their possible fate due to continuing insecurity in Rann and a lack of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of persons had fled the town of Rann in northeast Nigeria to Cameroon after a January attack by Islamist insurgents. In 2018 UNHCR and NGOs also reported cases of forced returns of asylum seekers, mostly of Nigerians. According to HRW, in 2017 more than 4,400 asylum-seeking Nigerians were forcibly returned to Nigeria. UNHCR reported that 1,300 were forcibly returned in 2018 and an estimated 600 in 2019. In February an estimated 40,000 Nigerian refugees who had fled to Cameroon in the wake of armed attacks were soon after returned to Nigeria, after Nigerian government officials advised that conditions were safe for their return. Humanitarian organizations, however, stated the conditions were unsafe for return and that the area was largely inaccessible to relief agencies.

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees, but the implementation of this system is less likely. UNHCR continued to provide documentation and assistance to the refugee population. Nevertheless, local authorities did not always recognize these documents as official, which prevented refugees from travelling and engaging in business activities. UNHCR and the government continued to conduct biometric verification and registration of refugees in the Far North Region, including of those not living in a refugee camp.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees had limited access to health care, education, and employment opportunities. Their rural host communities faced similar challenges, but the situation was somewhat worse for refugees. Access to these services varied according to the location of the refugees, with those in camps receiving support through humanitarian assistance, while refugees living in host communities faced difficulty receiving services.

Durable Solutions: UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria started the voluntary repatriation of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon as agreed upon under the 2017 tripartite agreement. The first phase of the voluntary repatriation exercise was conducted on August 22, and involved 133 Nigerian refugees, who departed Maroua for Yola in Nigeria’s Adamawa State, using a Nigerian Air Force plane.

In June 2018 UNHCR carried out return intention surveys using a sample of 4,000 CAR refugees that indicated that approximately one quarter of those surveyed would be interested in going back home, while three quarters would prefer local integration as a durable solution. As of year’s end, UNHCR had assisted more than 2,000 CAR refugees who elected to voluntary return to their areas of origin.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, unofficial protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to hundreds of individuals during the year, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in CAR. Due to their unofficial status and inability to access services or support, many of these individuals were subject to harassment and other abuses.

Not applicable.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published findings on human rights cases. Government officials impeded the effectiveness of many local human rights NGOs by harassing their members, limiting access to prisoners, refusing to share information, and threatening violence against NGO personnel. Human rights defenders and activists received anonymous threats by telephone, text message, and email. The government took no action to investigate or prevent such occurrences. The government at times denied international organization access to the country. The government criticized reports from international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, HRW, and the International Crisis Group, accusing them of publishing baseless accusations. On April 12, for example, officials at Douala International Airport refused entry to an HRW researcher, even though she held a valid visa.

There were several reports of intimidation, threats, and attacks aimed at human rights activists including members of the REDHAC and the Network of Cameroonian Lawyers against the Death Penalty, among others. A female human rights advocate was sexually assaulted by an armed man who warned her to stop harassing the government.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In May UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet visited Cameroon, at the invitation of the Cameroonian government, to evaluate progress made in the protection and promotion of human rights. Bachelet expressed concern to the government over the shrinking of civic space in Cameroon.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In June the government passed a law establishing the Cameroon Human Rights Commission (CHRC), as a replacement for the existing NCHRF. Like the NCHRF, the CHRC is a nominally independent but government-funded institution. The law establishing the CHRC extended its missions to protect human rights, incorporating provisions of Articles 2 and 3 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The CHRC did not become operational during the year, because the president had not yet designated its members. The NCHRF continued to operate in its place. It coordinated actions with NGOs, visited some prisons and detention sites, and provided human rights education. NGOs, civil society, and the general population considered the NCHRF dedicated and effective, albeit inadequately resourced and with insufficient ability to effectively hold human rights violators to account. A number of observers questioned the decision to establish a new institution and expressed concerns about its ability to confront the government that funds it.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government did not always respect this right. The press frequently and openly criticized public officials and public policy decisions. Individuals generally could criticize the government, its officials, and other citizens in private without being subject to official reprisals. Public criticism, however, of government officials and corruption sometimes resulted in intimidation, threats, and arrest. Provincial-level governments also prevented journalists from filming or covering some protests. Through June 30, the UNJHRO documented human rights abuses against at least 85 journalists. On May 3, President Tshisekedi was the first head of state from the country to take part in World Press Freedom Day in Kinshasa, declaring the government’s commitment to promote freedom of the press.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits insulting the head of state, malicious and public slander, and language presumed to threaten national security. Authorities sometimes intimidated, harassed, and detained journalists, activists, and politicians when they publicly criticized the government, president, or SSF. On April 9, Radio Television Nsanga in Kasai Province was stormed by nine armed PNC officers on orders of the director of the local telecommunication authority. Journalists were ordered to abruptly interrupt broadcasting and leave the premises. The previous day agents from the telecommunication authority had asked the station to pay 338,000 Congolese francs ($200) in tax without explaining why. Plainclothes and uniformed security agents allegedly monitored political rallies and events.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law mandates the High Council for the Audiovisual and Communications to provide for freedom of the press and equal access to communications media and information for political parties, associations, and citizens. A large and active private press functioned in Kinshasa and in other major cities, and the government licensed a large number of daily newspapers. Radio remained the principal medium of public information due to limited literacy and the relatively high cost of newspapers and television. The state owned three radio stations and three television stations, and the former president’s family owned two additional television stations. Government officials, politicians, and to a lesser extent church leaders, owned or operated the majority of media outlets.

The government required newspapers to pay a one-time license fee of 250,000 Congolese francs ($150) and complete several administrative requirements before publishing. Broadcast media were also subject to a Directorate for Administrative and Land Revenue advertisement tax. Many journalists lacked professional training, received little or no set salary, could not access government information, and exercised self-censorship due to concerns of harassment, intimidation, or arrest.

In November local NGO Journalists in Danger (JED) reported 85 cases of attacks on media from November 2018 to October and attributed 25 percent of these attacks to state security forces. JED reported the number of attacks on media decreased by approximately 30 percent from 2018. JED reported 16 cases of arrests of journalists, a 70 percent decline from the previous year, including several who remained in detention for more than the legal limit of 48 hours without being charged. JED reported 41 instances of authorities preventing the free flow of information, as well as efforts to subject journalists to administrative, judicial, or economic pressure. At year’s end the government had not sanctioned or charged any perpetrator of press freedom violations.

On March 20, Flavien Rusaki, a journalist and owner of the news outlet Tokundola, which broadcasts on several television stations in Kinshasa, was assaulted by activists from the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) political party outside its headquarters in Kinshasa. Rusaki was accompanying opposition figure Franck Diogo, who had just been released from prison following President Tshisekedi’s amnesty order, and was en route to UDPS party headquarters to show his support for the president. UDPS supporters accused Rusaki as a supporter of defeated presidential candidate Martin Fayulu and attacked him.

Violence and Harassment: Local journalists were vulnerable to intimidation and violence by the SSF. JED reported that on August 1, a FARDC soldier assaulted Frank Masunzu, a journalist for Radio Pole FM, in Masisi Territory of North Kivu Province, while trying to interview victims of alleged FARDC abuses.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: While the High Council for Audiovisual and Communications is the only institution with legal authority to restrict broadcasts, the government, including the SSF and provincial officials, also exercised this power.

Media representatives reported they were pressured by provincial government authorities not to cover events organized by the opposition or news concerning opposition leaders.

On June 29, the government forced Radio Television by Satellite (RTVS1), a media company owned by opposition leader Adolphe Muzito, to shut down, allegedly for tax arrears after it broadcast a message encouraging participation in a banned protest. This was the first such instance of forced media closure since President Tshisekedi took office, and the timing was seen as deliberate. The government did not reestablish RTVS1’s signal until August 1. On September 4, JED reported approximately 30 media outlets were closed throughout the country.

Libel/Slander Laws: The national and provincial governments used criminal defamation laws to intimidate and punish critics. On March 1, Radio Television Sarah journalist Steve Mwanyo Iwewe was sentenced by a provincial criminal court to 12 months in prison and a fine of 338,000 Congolese francs ($200) for insulting the governor of Equateur Province. Governor Bobo Boloko Bolumbu ordered Iwewe’s arrest on February 27 after he refused to stop filming a protest by employees of the local environmental department. Iwewe was freed on March 30 after successfully appealing his case. He reported that he was “brutally beaten by the governor’s bodyguards” during his arrest.

Local media reported that on August 1, Michel Tshiyoyo, a journalist for Radio Sozem in Kasai Central Province, was arrested over a social media post in which he discussed a dispute between two regional politicians. Martin Kubaya, the provincial governor, alleged the Facebook post was “hate speech.” On August 23, Tshiyoyo was sentenced to two years in prison. The Congolese National Press Union said Tshiyoyo had not committed any violations and called for his release. As of November he was still in prison.

National Security: The national government used a law that prohibits anyone from making general defamatory accusations against the military to restrict free speech.

Nongovernmental Impact: IAGs and their political wings regularly restricted press freedom in the areas where they operated.

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet.

Some private entrepreneurs made moderately priced internet access available through internet cafes in large cities throughout the country. Data-enabled mobile telephones were an increasingly popular way to access the internet.

From December 31, 2018, to January 19, following national elections, the outgoing Kabila government suspended internet access. In December 2018 the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Congo demanded telecommunications companies restrict access for security reasons and to prevent the dissemination of unofficial results of the December 30 elections. Opposition and civil society groups accused the government of preventing them from sharing photographs of results following the vote tabulation, reporting and speaking out against electoral irregularities, and organizing demonstrations. On January 7, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression denounced the government’s action as unjustifiable and a flagrant violation of international law. The regulatory authority restored internet access on January 19, the day the Constitutional Court confirmed President Tshisekedi’s election win.

Authorities continued to reserve the right to implement internet blackouts, citing a 2002 act that grants government officials the power to shut down communications and conduct invasive surveillance. Additionally, at times the Criminal Code of 1940 and Press Freedom Act of 1996 were used to restrict freedom of expression.

There were no reported government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but government authorities restricted this right and prevented those critical of the government from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, especially in Upper Uele, North Kivu, and Tanganyika Provinces. The law requires organizers of public events to notify local authorities in advance of the event. The government maintained public events required advance permission and regularly declined to authorize public meetings or protests organized by opposition parties or civil society groups critical of the government. During the year the SSF beat, detained, or arrested persons participating in protests, marches, and meetings. The SSF also used tear gas, rubber bullets, and at times live ammunition, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries.

The United Nations reported an opening of democratic space, including the freedom to peacefully assemble, by the government following Tshisekedi’s inauguration. Local and regional governments, however, continued to prohibit and repress some demonstrations. According to MONUSCO there were 461 violations of democratic space as of June 30, a decrease from the 499 violations recorded during the same period in 2018. These included restrictions on freedom of assembly, the right to liberty and security of person, and of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

On May 10, in Goma, the PNC used excessive force to disperse members of civil society movement Lucha, during peaceful protests against reported poor service by telecommunications providers. Eight persons were taken to the hospital, including three individuals who were beaten to the point of losing consciousness.

On June 30, the country’s Independence Day, the PNC violently dispersed a peaceful demonstration of opposition coalition Lamuka supporters in Goma, North Kivu Province. During the dispersal a man was shot and died of his injuries the next day. On the same day, despite having no legal basis to do so, Kinshasa governor Gentiny Ngobila banned a planned march by Lamuka supporters in the city, citing the day’s symbolic nature in his decision. President Tshisekedi publicly supported the decision to ban all protests across the country on June 30. According to the United Nations, police fired tear gas to prevent the march, and antiriot police intercepted the group’s leader, Martin Fayulu. On June 24, a union of doctors and nurses held a rally in Kinshasa to protest nonpayment of back salaries. According to local media, PNC officers beat and fired tear gas at the protesters. The PNC claimed the assembly was illegal because the association had not received permission from the mayor’s office.

On July 20, Kinshasa governor Ngobila banned all protests from July 22 to July 27 after the youth wing of President Tshisekedi’s UDPS political party announced plans to protest the candidacy of former minister of justice Alexis Thambwe Mwamba for the Senate presidency, and counter protests were organized by the youth wing of former president Kabila’s party.

In Kinshasa opposition parties were often allowed to hold political rallies. On February 2, Martin Fayulu, runner up in the December 2018 presidential election, held a rally with thousands of supporters in Kinshasa, where he called for peaceful resistance against what he described as a rigged election. Police did not intervene in the rally, and the event was covered on state television. On June 23, opposition politician Jean-Pierre Bemba held a large rally in Kinshasa to commemorate his return to the country after a self-imposed exile.

Similarly, when politician Moise Katumbi returned to Lubumbashi on May 22 after three years in exile, he was greeted by thousands of supporters. Katumbi faced difficulty, however, holding rallies in conflict-affected parts of the country (see section 3).

The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Civil society organizations and NGOs are required to register with the government and may receive funds only through donations; they may not generate any revenue, even if it is not at a profit. The registration process was burdensome and very slow. Some groups, particularly within the LGBTI community, reported the government had denied their registration requests. Many NGOs reported that, even when carefully following the registration process, it often took years to receive legal certification. Many interpreted registration difficulties as intentional government obstacles for impeding NGO activity.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government sometimes restricted these rights.

Several high-profile opposition figures were allowed to return to the country after years in self-imposed exile. In April the government annulled a prison sentence in absentia for politician Moise Katumbi, enabling him to safely return in May for the first time in three years. Similarly, Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, another opposition politician, was granted a passport in May, allowing him to return to the country after more than a year in exile.

In-country Movement: The SSF established barriers and checkpoints on roads and at airports and markets, both for security reasons and to track movement related to the Ebola outbreak. The SSF routinely harassed and extorted money from civilians for supposed violations, sometimes detaining them until they or a relative paid. The government required travelers to submit to control procedures at airports and ports during domestic travel and when entering and leaving towns. IAGs engaged in similar activity in areas under their control, routinely extorting civilians at checkpoints and holding them for ransom.

Local authorities continued to collect illegal taxes and fees for boats to travel on many parts of the Congo River. There also were widespread reports FARDC soldiers and IAG combatants extorted fees from persons taking goods to market or traveling between towns (see section 1.g.).

The SSF sometimes required travelers to present travel orders from an employer or government official, although the law does not require such documentation. The SSF often detained and sometimes exacted bribes from individuals traveling without orders.

Foreign Travel: Because of inadequate administrative systems, passport issuance was irregular. Officials accepted bribes to expedite passport issuance, and there were reports the price of fully biometric passports varied widely.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that, including individuals displaced for longer than 12 months, there were 4.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including 2.7 million children, in the country. The government was unable to consistently protect or assist IDPs adequately but generally allowed domestic and international humanitarian organizations to do so. The government sometimes closed IDP camps without coordinating with the international humanitarian community. UNHCR and other international humanitarian organizations worked to close IDP sites where the security situation was relatively stable.

Conflict, insecurity, and poor infrastructure adversely affected humanitarian efforts to assist IDPs. UNHCR estimated that of the 350,000 IDPs displaced by intercommunal violence in Ituri in June, it had access to only 120,000 due to insecurity and inability to travel. Population displacements continued throughout the year, particularly in the east. Many areas continued to experience insecurity, such as North Kivu’s Beni Territory, Ituri Province, South Kivu’s Fizi Territory, and Maniema and Tanganyika Provinces. Intercommunal violence and fighting among armed groups in the east resulted in continued population displacement and increased humanitarian needs for IDPs and host communities. International organizations estimated 40 percent of displacements in the country were due to actions of the FARDC.

Due to the remote location, weak civilian authority, and insecurity of the Kasai region, humanitarian access was difficult, and IDPs lived in poor conditions without adequate shelter or protection. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, including gang rape. UNHCR representatives said that of the 350,000 Congolese, including 1,941 refugees, who were forcibly repatriated from Angola in October 2018 and were then displaced in the Kasai region, the majority had returned to their areas of origin.

Combatants and other civilians abused IDPs. Abuses included killings, sexual exploitation of women and children (including rape), abduction, forced conscription, looting, illegal taxation, and general harassment.

f. Protection of Refugees

As of August 31, UNHCR reported 538,706 refugees in the country, primarily from seven adjacent countries, of whom 216,018 were from Rwanda. Of the refugees in the country, 63 percent were children.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Continuing conflict in North Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika Provinces harmed refugees and IDPs in the regions, with attacks often resulting in deaths and further displacement. UNHCR reported Rwandan refugees in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu were subject to cyclical displacement as a result of FARDC and IAG operations and were forced to relocate to South Kivu.

The government occasionally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. In Bunia, Ituri Province, local authorities granted land for a new IDP site after UNHCR raised concerns the site hosting 11,000 IDPs near the city’s hospital during an Ebola outbreak was unfit.

In August the national government provided 422 million Congolese francs ($250,000) each to the governors of Kasai and Kasai Central to provide protection and transportation assistance to an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 returnees from Angola. Both governors worked with UNHCR, the World Food Program, Doctors Without Borders, and other international partners to facilitate the repatriation.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a rudimentary system for providing protection to refugees. The system granted refugee and asylum status and provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

As of August 31, there were 10,144 asylum seekers in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers with welfare and safety needs. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes by allowing their entry into the country and facilitating immigration processing. In establishing security mechanisms, government authorities did not treat refugees differently than citizens.

Durable Solutions: On July 5, the government signed a tripartite agreement with the Central African Republic (CAR) and UNHCR, allowing CAR refugees to return home. At least 4,000 CAR refugees expressed their intention to return home. In November, 396 refugees returned to CAR from the northern part of the country in the first repatriation convoy.

The country did not invoke the cessation clause effective in 2013 for Rwandan refugees who fled Rwanda before the end of 1998. In 2016 the government joined other refugee-hosting countries and UNHCR to commit to facilitating repatriation of Rwandans from countries of asylum. To implement the tripartite agreement from 2014, the National Commission on Refugees and UNHCR began in 2016 the process of biometrically registering Rwandan refugees who opted to remain in the country. Refugees received long-term, renewable permits to remain in the country. The program included a path to citizenship. Conflict impeded the process in North Kivu, where most of the refugees were located. UNHCR continued to support voluntary repatriation, and between January and August it assisted in repatriating 1,088 Rwandan refugees.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to an undetermined number of individuals who may not qualify as refugees (see section 1.g.).

The country has a population of de facto stateless residents and persons at risk of statelessness, including persons of Sudanese origin living in the northeast, Mbororo pastoralists in the far north, forced returnees from Angola and former Angolan refugees, mixed-race persons who are denied naturalization, and Congolese citizens without civil documentation. There were no accurate estimates of this population’s size. The law does not discriminate in granting citizenship on the grounds of gender, religion, or disability; however, the naturalization process is cumbersome and requires parliamentary approval of individual citizenship applications. Persons whose names are not spelled according to local custom were often denied citizenship, as were individuals with lighter colored skin. Persons without national identification cards were sometimes arbitrarily arrested by the SSF.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Elements of the SSF continued to kill, harass, beat, intimidate, and arbitrarily arrest and detain domestic human rights advocates and domestic NGO workers, particularly when the NGOs reported on or supported victims of abuses by the SSF or reported on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the east. In September, Human Rights Watch’s lead analyst for the country, Ida Sawyer, was granted a visa, and returned for the first time in three years. Sawyer–one of the foremost experts on human rights in the country–had been blacklisted under the Kabila regime. She stated she was encouraged by the Tshisekedi administration’s commitment to real change. During the year the government declined to issue or renew visas for some international journalists and researchers. Representatives from the Ministry of Justice and the ANR met with domestic NGOs and sometimes responded to their inquiries.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government cooperated at times with investigations by the United Nations and other international bodies but was not consistent in doing so. For example, the government refused to grant the United Nations access to certain detention centers, particularly at military installations such as military intelligence headquarters, where political prisoners were often detained. The government and military prosecutors cooperated with the UN team supporting investigations related to the 2017 killing of two UN experts, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan, in Kasai Central Province.

In August, FARDC Colonel Jean de Dieu Mambweni was formally charged in the killings of the two UN experts, leading to the creation of a higher-level military panel that was hearing the case against him as well as the other defendants, some of whom were being tried in a lower level military court since June 2017. As of August a number of key suspects remained at large, including Evariste Ilunga, one of the few suspects identified in the video of the killings, and several others who were part of a prison escape in Kasai Central Province in May.

On July 8, the ICC convicted Bosco Ntaganda of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ituri between 2002 and 2003. Ntangada’s crimes included murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers in the country. In 2004 the government requested the ICC investigate the situation. On November 7, the ICC sentenced Ntaganda to 30 years in prison for his crimes.

Government Human Rights Bodies: During the year the National Commission on Human Rights published reports on 2018 intercommunal violence in Yumbi Territory, the condition of prisons and other detention facilities, and insecurity due to poaching in Haut Lomami Province. It also visited detention centers, followed up on complaints of human rights violations from civilians, and held a meeting on the right to demonstrate. It continued to lack sufficient funding for overhead costs or to have full-time representation in all 26 provinces.

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