The Media Today

Q&A: Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala on reporting, imprisonment, and an attempted coup in the DRC

May 22, 2024
FILE - Congolese security forces secure the streets after Congo's army said it has "foiled a coup" and arrested the perpetrators, following a shootout, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Sunday May 19, 2024. Six people were killed during brazen attacks in Congo's capital Kinshasa on Sunday. Two guards of a close ally of Congo's president and four of the perpetrators of the attacks, including their leader, were killed, Congolese army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge told The Associated Press on Monday, May 20, 2024 (AP Photo/Samy Ntumba Shambuyi, File)

On Sunday, Christian Malanga—an opponent of Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and a group of supporters that reportedly included three American citizens attacked the presidential palace in an attempted coup. The attack—which was ultimately thwarted by the military, with Malanga and two others killed in the fighting—came a few months into Tshisekedi’s second term. When he won reelection in December, there were concerns of ​​electoral fraud—an echo of 2018, when he became president in what has since been described as a stolen election. 

The DRC is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world; it has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt, the material used in lithium-ion batteries that power many mobile phones and electric cars, as well as high-grade copper reserves, another essential component for electronic devices. Yet because of these riches, the country has also become a site of extreme exploitation. International companies and traders benefit from corrupt contracts to control the country’s mines. The vast majority of Congolese people are excluded from this lucrative industry or left with little option other than to work in highly dangerous artisanal mines, an environment that has been likened to modern slavery. Tshisekedi has done little to change this reality, and the US and other countries have continued to support him in the name of stability. 

Among other things, this all adds up to a tumultuous environment for Congolese journalists. Threats, attacks, and the risk of imprisonment plague reporters trying to cover political corruption, armed conflict in the country’s eastern region––where rebel groups like M23 have fought  the Congolese military for control of mineral-rich lands—and hazardous mining work among both adults and children. 

Last year, Stanis Bujakera Tshiamala, a correspondent for Jeune Afrique and Reuters who is also deputy director of the Congolese news site, was jailed for six months on charges of spreading false information and forgery. He was released in March and has since continued to write about the DRC, albeit now from the US, where he has the status of permanent resident. This week, we spoke about this experience, covering multiple consequential events at once, and what the attempted coup means for the DRC going forward. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

FM: How have you been since you were released? How are you feeling?

SBT: At first, a mixture of emotions. I feel relieved, upright, and more determined than ever. But I also have within me this feeling of anger in the face of an injustice suffered. Without forgetting what happened, I decided to forgive, and I remain patient and confident for the future because the truth resists time.

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I am coming out of an extremely difficult situation. The central prison of Makala—the largest prison in the Congolese capital [Kinshasa], where I was detained—was built for fifteen hundred people, and when I left had more than fifteen thousand prisoners, most of them pretrial detainees, detained in difficult situations, sleeping on the ground in unhygienic facilities. Makala prison is the antechamber of hell. I was in the VIP pavilion; for a hundred people, there were only four toilets combined with showers and only one sink to brush your teeth in the morning. The detainees in other pavilions are not treated like humans.

What do you think when you see other journalists going through similar things or other silencing tactics?

Those who were behind this affair got it all wrong. They made a serious mistake. Almost everywhere in my country, journalists are threatened, intimidated, harassed, prosecuted, unjustly imprisoned, and silenced for the simple reason that they reveal facts that disturb some. In 2023, because we revealed facts deemed disturbing by the authorities, I paid a high price with an arrest and a long illegal detention, based on false, fabricated accusations, and followed by a dictated sentence. But we don’t give up. More than ever, in the DRC as elsewhere in Africa and in the world, we are witnessing the return of predators of the free and independent press, the backbone of a healthy democracy. We will continue to raise our voices to mobilize and encourage journalists to never give in in the face of setbacks and attacks on our freedom.

Up until then, what was your experience like working as a journalist, trying to cover things like presidential elections?

Our country faces several challenges, including that of governance. I was arrested a few weeks before the elections last December. We all do quality work, and my feeling is that the authorities do not accept that a truth is told or revealed by a Congolese journalist. This fight for a free, independent, and professional press is not against the government, even less against the opposition or anyone [else], but that of a press focused solely on facts delivered without compromise or complacency.

There are many things going on in the DRC right now: war in the east, mining corruption, humanitarian crises. What is the most important thing to understand about all of these events?

First, on the internal level, we need leadership and vision. We must do everything to stop the deaths in the eastern part of the country; it is a complex situation, but we must put an end to these killings, which are hitting innocent people. And the world must be sincere with us on this issue.

Congo’s mines attract a lot of international media attention because of the exploitation of Congolese citizens and the many competing foreign powers involved. What are your thoughts on how it gets covered? And what’s your experience been like?

The media I see that are present, they have the will to do it. But you need the means, the security guarantees to access the different sites. I attempted an investigation into child labor in mining sites in Kolwezi, in the province of Lualaba, with two Swedish friends. We were prohibited from approaching these areas; the day we approached an artisanal site, we were forced to leave the province. Journalists must have easy access to information in the name of transparency, and this is not the case at the moment. The information is controlled, and independent investigation is very disapproved of by those who govern.

There is also the attempted coup that happened on Sunday, in which a few Americans were reportedly involved. What is the state of things in the DRC right now, and how does this reflect on President Tshisekedi?

It is still early to really understand what happened, as there is already a sort of communication cacophony among the authorities regarding the classification of this event. But [it] is indicative of the current situation in the country that, even if it is through violence, power must be conquered. There is a kind of despair and frustration in the country today from unease, division, disappointment, in addition to the war in the eastern part of the country and many other things. It’s a real cocktail—which, if the authorities do not become aware and respond very quickly to these problems, can lead to destabilization.

Other notable stories:

  • Last month, Google warned that it would stop giving money to newsrooms in California until it had “clarity” on the state’s “regulatory environment”—a response to a bill working its way through the state legislature that would force big tech companies to compensate news outlets for links to their content. (CJR’s Cameron Joseph wrote about the bill in February.) Now Sara Fischer reports for Axios that Google is threatening to stop supporting nonprofit newsrooms nationwide in response to a different bill out of California that would tax big tech firms’ digital ad transactions to fund the hiring of journalists in the state. Per Fischer, bosses at Google fear that “the new California ad tax bill could set a troubling wider precedent for other states.”
  • After The New Yorker blocked readers in the UK from accessing the online version of a story about Lucy Letby, a British nurse convicted of murdering seven babies, to comply with a court order limiting coverage of her ongoing case, The Guardian’s Archie Bland asks whether the country’s contempt-of-court laws are still suited to the task. The goal of ensuring fair trials is “laudable,” he writes, but in the internet age, “a framework intended to insulate juries from undue influence can instead create chaos,” with the ironic result “that irresponsible coverage is sometimes easier to bump into than the other kind.”
  • And The Bulwark’s Marc Caputo profiles Natalie Harp, a Trump aide who, he reports, was responsible for reposting a video on Trump’s Truth Social account this week that used the words “Unified Reich.” (The creator of the video and Trump’s campaign claim not to have noticed the phrase.) Harp also travels with a portable printer so that she can print things out for Trump to read. “Perhaps more than anyone else,” Caputo writes, she “gatekeeps much of what Trump sees on social media and reads in the news.”

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.