Freedom of expression, including for members of the press, is a foundational component of a vibrant, fully functioning democracy. Peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive societies depend on the free flow of information and ideas, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information both online and offline.
During my 3 1/2 years here, I have consistently highlighted the importance of press freedom and access to information for the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) development and democratic success. I have tried to model this value by being open and accessible with Congolese and international journalists and by sharing information about my meetings and activities through social media – where I now have over 220K followers. I welcome tough questions, accepting that some will be critical, and embracing dialogue with journalists based on mutual respect. This dialogue is absolutely critical to promoting greater understanding between our countries and empowering vibrant democratic societies.
World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity for governments to reflect on their commitment to press freedom – in deed as well as in word – and for media professionals to reflect on journalism ethics and their sacred role in a healthy democracy. Importantly, it is also a day to commemorate those journalists, like Joel Mumbere Musavuli of Radio Télévision Communautaire de Babombi who was killed last year and all others who have lost their freedom, and in too many instances, their lives, for reporting the truth and for bearing witness to conflict, oppression, and despair.
In the DRC, this year’s World Press Freedom Day is also an opportunity for government and media stakeholders to follow up on the recommendations from the [meeting of the] Etats Généraux de la Communication et des Médias that took place in late January of this year.
Media professionals, alongside the DRC government, made commitments to improve the media sector and the status of journalists. The Union Nationale de la Presse Congolaise (UNPC) committed to strengthening self-regulation of journalists and creating a status for bloggers. Improving self-regulation of the media profession will improve journalistic integrity and ultimately protect the profession from attacks by those who seek to discredit journalism and the truth. Furthermore, resource mobilization and fair regulation for independent media outlets must be addressed through improved fiscal policy. Journalists who can’t feed themselves are journalists vulnerable to unethical practices. There is also growing fiscal pressure on media outlets. Recently four media outlets were forced to close in East Kasai for non-payment of advertising fees that exceeded their revenues. Over-taxation and levying fees against media to close their operations harms free speech and a free press.
To protect journalists, the Government of the DRC must also revise the 1996 Press Freedom Law to de-penalize press offenses, including defamation. Threats of defamation should not bring jail-time and the burden of proof for defamation should rest with the accuser; otherwise, this law can be used to intimidate and silence journalists. The United States condemns threats, harassment, and violence targeting journalists and media workers. No members of the press should be intimidated, threatened, or attacked by anyone for any reason, or arrested simply for doing their job. Journalism is not a crime.
The Government of the DRC should also follow through on its commitment at the Etats Généraux to push the National Assembly to adopt the Access to Public Information Law. Access to government information is not only crucial to improving public service delivery standards and improving the local business environment, but it allows journalists, civil society, DRC institutions, and even the parliament itself, the opportunity to provide oversight of officials’ actions.
Access to information ensures an informed citizenry and enables them to hold their officials accountable. An Access to Public Information law is at the heart of transparency and anti-corruption, an important tool in combating the illegal logging and wildlife trafficking that endangers the precious “First Lung” of the Congo Basin and robs Congolese citizens of their natural resources and economic opportunity. Passage of this law would be celebrated by the Congolese and the international community as a true demonstration of the government’s commitment to anti-corruption.
Today, we also cannot ignore that in the digital age, while it is easy to spread accurate information, it is also easier to spread misinformation to the public. This dangerous reality makes it even more important that governments, journalists, and civil society disseminate timely, accurate information to the people. We’ve seen all too well in recent years that around the world, democracy and human rights have been threatened and undermined by disinformation, misinformation, and outright lies. Government and journalists must work together to bring the facts to the table.
That is why the United States, through USAID, is proud to announce an additional $1.5 million to the Media Sector Development Activity, implemented by FHI360 and Internews. This additional funding will help counter misinformation, hate speech and false information ahead of the DRC’s 2023 election.
To have a free and fair election, the Congolese people must have access to accurate information about the political process. We are happy to see that the Government of the DRC recognizes the importance of a clear communication strategy and providing real time information to the public.
Trustworthy information is a public good, a shared resource for the whole of humanity. Let’s all work together to protect it.
By Michael Hammer
U.S. Ambassador to the DRC