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.

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