Uzbeki beki stan stan

Hey, I was listening to that!: On the curbing of media freedoms in Belarus and the DRC

In David Meyer on January 10, 2012 at 11:52 pm

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for media freedom in two very different parts of the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the newly (re)-inaugurated president, Joseph Kabila, and his regime took Radio France Internationale (RFI) offline for several days, threatening Congolese access to external sources of information. Perhaps an even larger blow to personal liberty was struck in the authoritarian stronghold of Belarus, where President Lukashenka’s regime began enforcing a law that seriously undermines Belarusian citizens’ access to the internet. Both of these developments are tied to the changing political situations in the countries, but what are the implications for both states’ futures?

On December 31st, DRC Communications and Media Minister Lambert Mende accused RFI of supporting Etienne Tshisekedi’s claim to the presidency (he was Kabila’s main challenger in last year’s presidential election) and of acting with “deliberate will to create a confused [political] situation which can lead us to confrontations between Congolese,” and thus their signal would be cut off until further notice (all DRC links in French). The French radio service had also had its signal disrupted several times following Tshisekedi’s proclamation that he alone was the true president of the country on December 23rd. On January 6th, the U.S. State Department denounced the move as amounting to “censoring” the media in the country and called on the government to immediately reestablish the station’s signal. Fortunately, on January 9th RFI service was restored, with Minister Mende noting (as if there had been nothing strange about the cutoff) that the enforced outage was “finished” but ominously stating that the station needs to have submitted to Congolese law if it wants to continue to enjoy its broadcasting rights. However, this is a hollow victory for media freedom in the DRC, as two other national media chains which are regarded as close to the opposition, Radiotélévision Lisanga and New Canal futur, remain suspended. Unfortunately, the “victory” in the case of RFI may divert attention away from these other politically motivated blackouts of media outlets.

This isn’t the first time, and most likely won’t be the last, that the Kabila regime has manipulated media freedoms inside the country. Indeed, RFI had it’s signal cut off from July 2009 until October 2010 after the authorities accused the station of “lowering the morale” of the army. Perhaps more worrying was the suspension of SMS services across the entire country on December 3rd, just after the bitterly contested national elections. Vice Prime Minister of the Interior, Adolphe Lumanu, stated that the action “was taken in order to preserve public order and assure a happy outcome to the electoral process.” Service wasn’t restored until December 28th.

Infringements on media freedom directly impact citizens’ ability to participate in the political process. So, political freedom is directly connected to a free media. In the case of the DRC, geography matters, especially for communication networks. The DRC’s massive size and lack of infrastructure allows the state to clamp down easily on important frequencies or entire stations if they so desire. In addition, to shut off SMS service deprives large numbers of citizens of one of their primary means of communication, especially with friends and family. These moves by the Kabila regime show there to be considerable government concerns about possible organized protests à la Arab Spring, but they also reveal the desperation of a prototype failed state to keep control over its citizens.

This same type of desperation is on full display a little further north, in Belarus. In this case, however, the state isn’t failed, but rather inching in a more all-consuming direction. As mentioned above, the Lukashenka regime has brought into force a new law that restricts citizens’ internet usage and compels service provides, including internet cafes, to record the web traffic of each individual. Several opposition political websites have made their way onto the blacklist. This all comes on the heels of the massive crackdown on the democratic opposition following last year’s rigged presidential elections, in which Lukashenka won nearly 80% of the vote. Even as the Belarusian economy has tumbled, the regime has only been tightening its grip on power.

In contrast to the DRC, where state authorities also may have complete control over certain communications networks, Belarus has several characteristics that allow for external intervention despite regime lockdown. Indeed, Belsat, which receives Western funding and is based out of Poland, continues to broadcast satellite news from the outside to offer an alternative to state-controlled media in Belarus. Of course, Belsat operates at a low level and its journalists undertake significant risks reporting from inside the country, but as its viewership has risen above 10% of Belarusian citizens, there is hope that progress can be made on increasing Belarusian exposure to alternative forms of media. The internet crackdown, which can easily be linked to the deteriorating economic situation in Belarus, could herald new attempts by the regime to clamp down on this type of external broadcasting as well. Belarusians’ exposure to external media is critical to expanding their political consciousness, and possibly leading to further popular democratic uprisings in the country to match those that took place in the wake of last year’s flawed elections. This is a long-term goal, but the efforts of those that promote media freedom in the country are of utmost importance to Belarus’ future. In addition to these challenges to the Belarusian authorities at home, the U.S. has upped the ante, and new sanctions are due to come into effect soon.

As media crusaders battle on in Belarus, are there any lessons to take from their struggle that could be applicable in a country as different as the DRC? There already are several independent news outlets that operate in the DRC, notably Radio Okapi, which is funded by the U.N. Promoting local media sources would be important, if the money or support from the international community was there, and it clearly isn’t. In a country as vast as the DRC, especially with its infrastructural problems, it’s going to be very difficult to set up and maintain quality local news outlets without more outside aid (something Belsat continues to enjoy) and, unfortunately, as alluded to in my previous post, American policy in the DRC continues to be rather passive.

As for the possibilities of external broadcasting, they would run right into several problems. Obviously infrastructure, importantly internet penetration, is a major stumbling block, but there’s also an indelible legacy that gets in the way of any serious discussion on the topic. The history of insurgency in Central Africa is defined by rebel groups building their forces in neighboring states before launching their anti-government campaigns. Any type of external broadcasting by political exiles, who are clearly present in all of the surrounding states, would be too easily tied to ambitions of violent takeover of the DRC and the perceived threat could be instrumentalized by the Kabila regime to only further crack down on opposition groups and free media. However, the DRC is not the monolith that the Belarusian state is (or at least pretends to be), and a slow but steady approach of spreading new political ideas may be the best way towards the Congolese people undertaking a popular campaign to demand their political, civil, and human rights. If the Congolese are to take a lesson from the Belarusian activists, it should be that, although their work is dangerous, it is necessary to secure the future freedoms of all citizens, and it is their present perseverance that will define the future of their country.

-David Meyer

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