Information has become as factionalised as politics, an echo chamber of competing narratives. Into that vacuum, however, a group of young Congolese bloggers has attempted to inject an alternative voice.
Launched in 2016, Habari RDC is a collective of more than 100 Congolese bloggers and web activists, who use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to give voice to the opinions of young people from all over the DRC.
The collective won the Index on Censorship’s digital activism award at a ceremony in London on Thursday.
The aim of these citizen bloggers is to bear witness to what is happening in every corner of the country, which is plagued by extreme poverty, corruption and violence.
It is a bold and ambitious project in a country where, as Reporters without Borders notes: “Freedom of information is constantly violated and journalists are exposed to threats, physical violence, arrest, prolonged detention and even murder.”
Habari’s digital presence brings a clear advantage – using virtual private networks to circumvent censorship, while hosting debate on the big social network used in Congo, Facebook, where its posts often attract 200 comments.
In London last week to receive the award, Guy Muyembe, one of Habari’s founders, said: “We decided about two years ago that Congo needed another voice. It was important to us because our media tends to report only about the main Congolese leaders. The one voice you never hear is the voice of our country’s young people … what their experience is.”
And in a country whose population is overwhelmingly young – with some 64% of its citizens under 24 and 42.2 per cent under 14 – it is a crucial point.
Habari RDC, as Muyembe explains, has emerged at a key juncture in DRC’s fraught politics. Hopes of a new era of political stability under Joseph Kabila is under threat amid Kabila’s unwillingness to stand down after he completes two terms as president.
Instead, despite the St Sylvestre agreement of 2016 – which had foreseen Kabila’s departure and elections in 2017 – Kabila stayed in power amid a deteriorating environment for human rights and freedom of expression.
That has coincided with a worsening humanitarian and security crisis that has seen tens of thousands of refugees flee into Uganda, Angola, Tanzania and Zambia in recent months to escape violence.
Last week, the country’s leadership decided to boycott a humanitarian donor conference, after arguing there was no urgent need in DRC.
“It’s fair enough,” Muyembe says drily, adding briskly, “but then it is not in their interest to witness the country going badly.”
Muyembe is alarmed by the current political trajectory. “The country is not doing well and the political crisis is leading the economy to be degraded. Prices are going up every day. The cities are safe but that can’t be said for the places in the country where there is conflict.
“The 2016 agreement needs to be respected. The president can only be in power for 10 years and if it is not respected the situation will only get worse. I don’t see the regime organising elections and relinquishing power.”
Muyembe believes that one important aspect of Habari is that it allows ordinary Congolese to express their views on what is going on in the country, unmediated by the political factions.
“The worry is that if Kabila stays in power until 2020 or 2022 it will be like the past when the country was torn apart. And that feels like a real risk.”
Muyembe insists that Habari RDC is about more than the crisis. It also helps individuals – for instance, raising the plight of a woman who had been raped and was rejected by her family. It has reported on the suppression of the internet; and the use of road taxes to arm militias.
“The point of the the site is to talk about life in DRC,” he says. To that end, the site posts stories and cartoons about the country’s politics, but it also covers football, the arts and subjects such as domestic violence, child exploitation, the female orgasm, and sexual harassment at work.
Habari’s impact has already gone beyond its vibrant commentary to effecting genuine change. One of its recent achievements was encouraging voter registration in Walikale Territory where, in the past, not only has engagement been low but people have disappeared from the register.
An article about registration resulted in a voter enrolment campaign that saw 290,000 people signed up to vote, including 140,000 women.
Commenting on the value of Habari’s work in DRC, Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “Habari RDC brings young people’s voices to the attention of decision-makers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The internet is one of the few areas where the government hasn’t been able to exercise as much control, so it’s a really important vehicle for free expression in the country.” (The Guardian)