Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. NGOs reported, however, that the government did not adequately investigate or prosecute cases in which journalists or bloggers received threats.
Freedom of Expression: The law sanctions individuals who act “with the goal of spreading racial, religious, sexual, national, ethnic hatred, or hatred based on the color of skin or sexual orientation or other characteristics.” The law provides for six months to five years imprisonment for conviction of such “hate speech.” Conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by six months to three years imprisonment. Although the law and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi- and Ustasha (the World War II regime)-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media. Many private newspapers and magazines were published without government interference. Observers said, however, that information regarding actual ownership of some local radio and television channels was not always publicly available, raising concerns about bias, censorship, and the vulnerability of audiences in the country to malign influence.
On February 22, the Sisak city council prohibited Croatian Radio Television (HRT) journalist Igor Ahmetovic from entering an open city council session for reporting purposes. The Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) publicly demanded Sisak overturn that prohibition, stating the prohibition was a violation of the constitutional right to free reporting and access to information. A lawsuit filed by Ahmetovic against the city remained ongoing at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported that physical attacks and threats, especially online threats, against journalists had an increasingly chilling effect on media freedom and that the government was insufficiently addressing this problem.
For example, in July the Zadar district attorney indicted soccer player Jakov Surac on charges he committed battery and made death threats against journalist Hrvoje Bajlo. The indictment stated Surac committed the crime specifically because of Bajlo’s work as a journalist. The case was ongoing.
Additionally, in August the Split district attorney declined to press criminal charges against war veteran Stipe Perkovic Tabak for online statements that Index.hr journalists should be killed. The CJA condemned this decision, stating the court allowed Perkovic Tabak’s veteran status to give him immunity.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship for fear of receiving online harassment, upsetting politically connected individuals, or losing their jobs for covering certain topics.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 67 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government in most cases cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In August, however, UNHCR criticized the government for violent pushbacks of illegal migrants; the government stated that approximately 2,500 refugees and migrants were turned back at the border during the first eight months of the year.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: International and domestic NGOs reported police violence against asylum seekers and migrants, particularly on the country’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
UNHCR and several NGOs published reports alleging border police subjected migrants to degrading treatment, including verbal epithets and vulgarities, destruction of property, and beatings, including of vulnerable persons such as asylum seekers, minor children, persons with disabilities, and pregnant women. NGOs reported several migrants alleged border guards beat them while they were holding their infants or toddlers. One female migrant told NGOs male border police officers subjected her to a strip search in the forest in the presence of adult male migrants.
NGOs reported cases in which authorities kept families of asylum seekers detained in correctional facilities rather than in asylum reception centers. They stated police confined the families in cells for long periods, and children did not have access to outdoor exercise, education, books, or age-appropriate toys. In April the ECHR ordered the government to release one family from detention and allow them freedom of movement. In September the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights called on the government to launch prompt and independent investigations regarding allegations of police violence and theft against refugees and migrants and of collective expulsion.
Domestic NGOs working on migrants’ rights reported police pressure, such as extensive surveillance and questioning of employees’ close associates and family members. Similarly, the ombudsperson’s 2017 report described pressure imposed on her office by some high-ranking officials from the Ministry of the Interior who said she should not have discussed nor debated cases in public. In October the ombudsperson said the Ministry of the Interior had repeatedly denied her access to information on police treatment of migrants. The Ministry of the Interior stated it adequately responded to the ombudperson’s requests.
The Ministry of the Interior publicly denied all allegations of violence or inhuman treatment of migrants and all allegations of pressuring humanitarian workers. In response to a query from the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Minister of the Interior Davor Bozinovic wrote that the Ministry of the Interior investigated all complaints received but had not found enough concrete data to warrant a criminal investigation.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum and refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to asylum seekers. NGOs reported authorities at the border between Serbia and BiH prevented some migrants from applying for international protection, although officials denied these reports.
In June, claiming insufficient evidence, state prosecutors declined to prosecute a criminal case against police in the November 2017 death of a six-year-old Afghan girl killed by a train on the border with Serbia. The ombudsperson publicly called for an independent investigation into the actions of border police.
The Ministry of the Interior, in cooperation with several NGOs, provided applicants for international protection with housing and board, legal counseling, and psychological and humanitarian support. NGOs reported good cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior in the two asylum reception centers, Porin and Kutina, and asserted quality of services was generally good, giving education and medical services as positive examples. NGOS identified a need for increased psychiatric support, including for post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and drug/alcohol dependence.
In August the Ministry of the Interior adopted a comprehensive Protocol to provide assistance to unaccompanied minors.
In November 2017 the government began refurbishment of the Zagreb Reception Center for Asylum Seekers at Porin, which remained operational, transferring some residents temporarily to Kutina Center.
Durable Solutions: The government committed to receive 1,583 refugees and asylum seekers (1,433 under an EU relocation plan and 150 under an EU resettlement plan). As of August the country had received 81 refugees from Greece and Italy and resettled 105 Syrian refugees from Turkey.
The government continued to participate in a five-year joint regional housing program (RHP) with the governments of BiH, Montenegro, and Serbia. The RHP aimed to contribute to the resolution of the protracted displacement situation of the most vulnerable refugees and displaced persons following the 1991-95 conflict. As of August, the RHP had provided housing to 229 families incorporating 510 individuals in the country.
Temporary Protection: The Ministry of the Interior reported that from January to August, the government granted subsidiary protection to 20 persons who did not qualify as refugees.
UNHCR estimated there were approximately 290 persons stateless or at risk of statelessness in the country. Many of these persons were Roma who lacked citizenship documents. The Ministry of the Interior is responsible for granting stateless individuals residency and eventual citizenship. Leaders from the Romani community reported stateless individuals faced significant barriers to employment, education, property ownership, and access to medical services.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press. 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, the president, or government policies regarding elections, democracy, and corruption sometimes resulted in intimidation, threats, and arrest. The government also prevented journalists from filming or covering some protests and refused to renew or grant visas for several foreign media correspondents.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits insulting the head of state, malicious and public slander, and language presumed to threaten national security. Authorities sometimes detained journalists, activists, and politicians when they publicly criticized the government, the president, or the SSF. Plainclothes and uniformed security agents allegedly monitored political rallies and events.
Press and Media Freedom: The law mandates the High Council for the Audiovisual and Communications (CSAC) 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 predominantly in Kinshasa, although with some representation across the country, 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 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 ($156) 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 121 cases of attacks on media from November 2017 to October and attributed 77 percent of these attacks to government agents, including nearly half to state security forces. JED reported that the number of attacks on media had not changed from 2017. JED reported 53 cases of arrests of journalists, including 15 who remained in detention for more than the legal limit of 48 hours without being charged. In September the District Court of Kinshasa found editor of satirical newspaper Le Grognon Tharcisse Zongia guilty by default of criminal defamation charges for accusing Barthelemy Okito, secretary general of the Sports Ministry, of embezzling public funds meant for the national football team. He was sentenced to one year in prison.
Violence and Harassment: Local journalists were vulnerable to intimidation and violence by the SSF. On July 6, Bukavu correspondent for Africanews Gael Mpoyo and his family went into hiding after receiving multiple death threats for posting a documentary film concerning the forcible eviction of residents in Mbobero from a property belonging to President Kabila.
The 121 documented press freedom violations reported by JED included 53 journalists detained or arrested, 30 cases of journalists threatened or attacked, and 21 instances of authorities preventing the free flow of information. Other incidents included 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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: While the CSAC is the only institution with legal authority to restrict broadcasts, the government, including the SSF and provincial officials, also exercised this power. Some press officers in government agencies allegedly censored news articles by privately owned publications. Privately owned media increasingly practiced self-censorship due to fear of potential suppression and the prospect of the government shutting them down as it had done previously to a handful of major pro-opposition media outlets.
Media representatives reported they were pressured by the government not to cover events organized by the opposition or news concerning opposition leaders.
Libel/Slander Laws: The national and provincial governments used criminal defamation laws to intimidate and punish critics. For example, during the year Minister of Kasai Oriental Alphonse Ngoyi Kasanji charged television journalist Eliezer Ntambwe with defamation for an accusation during an interview that the governor had stolen a 35-carat diamond. Ntambwe was arrested on April 2, but released on April 11 after the governor withdrew his charge.
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: RMGs and their political wings regularly restricted press freedom in the areas where they operated.
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. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 8.6 percent of individuals in the country used the internet in 2017.
According to Freedom House, there were reports that government authorities disrupted access to news coverage to prevent critical reports on the government and government figures.
On December 30, 2017, the day before planned protests calling on President Kabila to step down, Posts and Telecommunications Minister Emery Okundi Ndjovu directed internet providers and cell phone companies to “suspend” short message service and internet service throughout the country “for reasons of State security.” On January 1, internet access was restored. The government cut most internet service from January 21 to January 24 during church-led protests calling on the government to hold elections and implement the December 2016 Agreement. The government cut internet service again on February 25 during additional protests. On December 31, the day after nationwide elections, the government cut internet again. The internet remained blocked at year’s end. 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, the Criminal Code of 1940 and Press Freedom Act of 1996 have been used to restrict freedom of expression.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no reported government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government frequently restricted this right and prevented those critical of the government from exercising their right to peaceful assembly. The law requires organizers of public events to notify local authorities in advance of the event. The government maintained that 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. The government did, however, authorize protests and assemblies organized by progovernment groups and political parties. 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.
According to MONUSCO there were 633 violations of democratic space from January through August. 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 March 19, a joint report of the UNJHRO and the OHCHR for 2017 stated that the SSF used illegal, systematic, and disproportionate force against protesters, resulting in 47 civilian deaths and several hundred wounded during protests. The report stressed the illegality of government prohibitions on public demonstrations and accused the FARDC’s 11th Rapid Reaction Brigade and the Republican Guard of grave violations of human rights for indiscriminately using live rounds specifically against civilians in August 2017 after members of the RMG Bundu dia Kongo separatist group attacked police and civilians in Kinshasa. The report also cited instances of threats and intimidation against protestors by government officials and outlined specific attacks and restrictions against UNJHRO personnel. The report confirmed at least nine deaths during December 2017 demonstrations, at least 98 wounded, and 185 arbitrarily arrested. For the January 21 demonstrations, the report cited at least seven persons killed, 67 wounded, and at least 121 persons arbitrarily arrested, including four children. The report also stressed that security force members were rarely, if ever, held accountable for disproportionate use of force during protests. It stated the United Nations was aware of only a few instances in which security force members were held accountable, including the case of one police officer who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Bukavu for conviction related to his actions during a protest in July 2017.
In March government and civil society representatives released a report of investigations into abuses related to protests during December 2017, on January 21, and on February 25, alleging 14 deaths, 65 injuries, and 40 persons arrested, detained, and in some cases tortured.
In Kinshasa opposition parties were regularly allowed to hold political rallies. On April 24, the opposition UDPS party held a rally in the capital. On September 29, opposition parties held a rally in Kinshasa, but reports and photographs showed that the government sought to deter attendance by halting public transportation, raising fuel prices, and dumping garbage near the site of the rally.
The government, which must simply be informed of nonviolent demonstrations and is not vested with authorizing their occurrence, consistently prohibited nonviolent demonstrations elsewhere in the country, notably in Lubumbashi, Kananga, and Goma. On October 13, government officials and the SSF blocked opposition leaders from organizing a political rally in Lubumbashi to highlight concerns regarding the electoral process. The SSF prevented opposition leaders from accessing a residence of the rally leader and fired live ammunition into the air while opposition members attempted to reach the planned rally point. From November 21 to election day on December 30, the JHRO recorded 16 election-related deaths. This included three deaths in Lubumbashi on December 11, one death in Tanganyika on December 12, one death in Mbuji-Mayi on December 13, one death in Kisangani on December 14, one death in Tshikapa on December 18, one death in Lubumbashi on December 19, six deaths in Tanganyika on December 27, one death in Beni on December 28, and one death in South Kivu province on election day on December 30.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
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 is burdensome and very slow. Some groups, particularly within the LGBTI community, reported the government had denied their registration requests.
During an interactive dialogue with civil society in Kinshasa in March 2016, the minister of justice and human rights stated that only 63 of more than 21,000 NGOs in the country were formally registered. 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.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government sometimes restricted these rights.
The government occasionally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (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 August and September, authorities forcibly closed three IDP camps in Tanganyika Province despite repeated concerns expressed by humanitarian agencies.
In 2016 the country sent one of several delegations from African nations, UNHCR, and the African Union that, after seven years of negotiations, reached an agreement on steps to end the protracted Rwandan refugee situation by the end of 2017. Between January and August, more than 2,460 Rwandans voluntarily repatriated from the country. As of August 31, UNHCR estimated there were 217,766 Rwandan refugees in the country.
In August the government allegedly took steps to prevent political opposition leader Moise Katumbi from returning to the country and registering himself as a presidential candidate. The government allegedly failed to provide landing clearance for his private plane and then closed the land border with Zambia to prevent him from crossing the border by road. The government denied these allegations.
In November 2017 the Directorate General of Migration confiscated the passport of opposition UDPS party secretary general Jean Marc Kabund Kabund at Kinshasa’s airport and prevented him from leaving the country. As of September 22, Kabund did not have a passport, although human rights lawyer Georges Kapiamba received his passport in March after it was similarly confiscated in November 2017.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Continuing conflict in North Kivu, Ituri, and Tanganyika provinces harmed refugees and IDPs in the region, with attacks often resulting in deaths and further displacement. In August the government forcibly closed three IDP camps in Tanganyika Province, displacing approximately 24,000 IDPs, and denied the humanitarian community access to the sites during and subsequent to their closure. The armed conflict sometimes exacerbated ethnic tensions and clashes among communities and displaced groups.
In-country Movement: The SSF and RMGs established barriers and checkpoints on roads and at airports and markets, ostensibly for security reasons, and 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.
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 that FARDC soldiers and RMG 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. As of January only fully biometric DRC passports were recognized. Officials accepted bribes to expedite passport issuance, and there were reports the price of fully biometric passports varied widely. There were also credible reports that the government refused to issue passports to civil society activists and opposition members critical of the government. On September 25, ACAJ director Georges Kapiamba reported that he was able to travel after his passport was confiscated in 2017.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
In November the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that there were 1.37 million IDPs in the country. This was a reduction of 3 million IDPs from the previous year. This reduced number stemmed from agreement between OCHA and the government to change the way in which IDPs were defined. Under this new formula, individuals displaced for more than 12 months were no longer counted as IDPs. The government was unable to protect or assist IDPs adequately but generally allowed domestic and international humanitarian organizations to do so. UNHCR and other international humanitarian organizations worked to close IDP sites where the security situation was relatively stable.
Conflict, insecurity, poor infrastructure and a change in government policy adversely affected humanitarian efforts to assist IDPs. From August to September, the government forcibly closed three IDP camps in Tanganyika province, displacing approximately 24,000 persons. 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 Tanganyika Province. Intercommunal violence and fighting among armed groups in the East resulted in continued population displacement and increased humanitarian needs for IDPs and host communities.
Due to the remote location 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. In October and November, an Angolan government policy led to the return of nearly 400,000 Congolese to Kongo Central, Kwango, Kasai Central, Kasai Oriental and Lualaba provinces. Included among the returnees were more than 2,000 refouled Congolese refugees, most of whom intended to remain in DRC.
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.
More than one million IDPs returned to their areas of origin in 2017 according to UNHCR. This included 491,000 returnees in Kasai-Central, 270,000 in North Kivu, 154,000 in Tanganyika, 121,000 each in Lomami and South Kivu, and 45,000 each in Maniema and Ituri. In the Kasai provinces, UNHCR reported that more than one million IDPs started to return to their homes in 2017, but continued insecurity, abuses by the SSF and RMGs, as well as thorough destruction of homes impeded returns. UNHCR considered most of the returnees to be living in extremely precarious conditions.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
As of August 31, UNHCR reported 536,271 refugees in the country from seven adjacent countries, of which approximately 218,000 were from Rwanda.
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 3,546 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: Through the application of the cessation clauses of the 1951 Convention and the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention, Angolans who fled the Angolan civil war (which ended in 2002) ceased to be refugees in 2012. In 2014 UNHCR launched the final assisted voluntary repatriation of former Angolan refugees. From January through September 2015, 3,916 Angolans returned home; another 21,290 Angolans in Kinshasa, Kongo Central, and Upper Katanga provinces awaited return. UNHCR helped another 18,638 Angolan refugees to file for local integration in 2015, including paying for their residency permits. As of June, 494 Angolan refugees remained in the country.
The country has not invoked 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 through December 31. To implement the tripartite agreement from 2014, the National Commission on Refugees (CNR) and UNHCR began in 2016 the process of biometrically registering Rwandan refugees. The FDLR impeded the process in North Kivu, where most of the refugees were located. UNHCR and the CNR suspended biometric registration following FDLR attacks on UNHCR-supported registration teams in 2016, during which the teams lost all of their data. An effort during the year registered 42,000 Rwandan refugees in South Kivu. UNHCR continued to support voluntary repatriation and between January and April it assisted in repatriating 1,347 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.).