Goma — Two journalists and two human rights activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo have gone into hiding over threats following the release of a documentary about mass evictions from land claimed by the presidential family.
Congolese authorities and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, should publicly condemn the threats, and ensure the safety of the journalists, Gaël Mpoyo and Franck Zongwe, and the activists, Jean-Chrysostome Kijana and Fidèle Mutchungu. The 27-minute film, "Mbobero: Might Is Always Right," released on July 6, 2018, alleges that state security forces, including the Republican Guard presidential security detail, evicted more than 2,000 people and destroyed about 300 homes and a hospital in Mbobero, South Kivu province, in the eastern part of the country since 2016.
"Journalists and rights activists who investigate allegations of government abuse should be able to carry out their work without intimidation or reprisal," said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Mbobero documentary raises serious concerns that should lead to independent investigations, not threats against those who have uncovered them."
On July 5, the day before the film's release in the provincial capital, Bukavu, a high-ranking government official telephoned Mpoyo, the director, warning him not to release his documentary, which the official said would "annoy" and "radicalize the [land]owner," who he admitted was President Joseph Kabila. The official confirmed to Human Rights Watch on July 23 that he had had this conversation with Mpoyo.
On July 10, an anonymous person threatened Mpoyo by text message: "Young man, now you're playing with fire... You're really playing with the Raïs [a Swahili title referring to President Kabila]! I give you 24 hours to take the video off YouTube if you still want to live. My men are observing you."
Others have also received threatening messages and phone calls since the film was released, including Mpoyo's colleague, Zongwe, and Kijana and Mutchungu, president and organizer, respectively, of the New Civil Society Dynamic in DR Congo (Nouvelle dynamique de la société civile en RD Congo, NDSCI), a Congolese human rights organization that first documented the evictions.
On July 20, from an anonymous number, saying: "You, JC Kijana. You came to Bukavu to set South Kivu on fire. Just wait. You are going to be sodomized until you bleed. You're not more important than the others. I know everywhere you go, day and night."
Following the release, unidentified men visited the homes of the two journalists and the two activists, looking for them. Men who said they were looking for Mpoyo visited his mother seven times. The four went into hiding because they fear for their lives.
Sources interviewed for the documentary have reportedly also received threats.
"I published this documentary because I thought it would help the people [of Mbobero]," Mpoyo told Human Rights Watch on July 19. "Until now, everybody, including the authorities, has been too afraid to talk openly about this incredibly sensitive dossier."
The New Civil Society group reported that the presidential family purchased 200 hectares of land in Mbobero, a village 10 kilometers outside Bukavu, in 2010. Currently the family claims more than 600 hectares in the area.
The documentary shows that Kabila's wife, Olive Lembe, accompanied state security forces, including Republican Guard soldiers - an elite force whose primary responsibility is to protect the president - during a raid on a local village.
"They came with a tractor to demolish our homes," a victim of the first evictions, in January 2016, told Human Rights Watch. "I saw the governor [of South Kivu province] and the president's wife. [At the hospital] the doctor who was operating on a patient asked them to wait so he could finish his work, but they didn't listen to him." The group said that 16 patients were forced to leave the hospital. Security forces then proceeded to destroy the hospital as well as about 50 nearby homes.
On February 15, 2016, security forces cracked down on a protest in Bukavu organized by the New Civil Society group against the evictions and briefly detained Kijana and some of his colleagues.
A second and third round of evictions began in February 2018. Security forces have since destroyed about 230 homes, the group said.
Many of the evicted families, including hundreds of children, are struggling, squatting in overcrowded homes with host families or sleeping in the open air. The village and surrounding area have had a large military presence since the evictions began, making it difficult for many villagers to reach their farms. Many children who lived in the demolished homes are no longer attending school. One primary school in the area has lost nearly half of its pupils since the evictions began. Evicted families have received no compensation or humanitarian assistance from the presidential family or other authorities since their homes were destroyed, activists and victims said.
The presidential family has previously used the Republican Guard to secure their business interests and landholdings, often through intimidation and fear. Human Rights Watch has documented the first lady's use of the Republican Guard to force families out of their homes after she acquired the land they were living on in Kilolirwe, North Kivu province, to use as a cattle farm.
"Olive Lembe asked me to tell you that she has already bought the land," the village chief told residents in 2014. The first lady later appeared at a public gathering, ordering the population to leave or face expulsion. More than 20 witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Republican Guard soldiers then burned several dozen homes in Kilolirwe, telling inhabitants "to leave, go away," as one put it.
Bloomberg News also reported that Republican Guard soldiers accompanied the first lady in Kilolirwe, when she told farmers to remove their makeshift homes or watch soldiers destroy them. The 2016 Bloomberg investigation into presidential family assets also reported that in one of the diamond concessions the family owned in Kwango province, Bloomberg journalists saw diamond diggers hand over "buckets of potentially gem-filled gravel as an informal tax" when the Republican Guard soldiers came by.
In a cobalt deposit in Haut-Katanga province, where diggers said they "worked for the presidential family under the supervision of Republican Guard soldiers," more than 100 diggers died in cave-ins during a six-week period in late 2015, according to a report by the Belgian magazine Moustique. A digger Bloomberg interviewed said the total number killed was significantly higher.
The threats against the journalists and activists behind the Mbobero documentary came in a context of increasing government repression as the country faces a worsening political crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Long-delayed elections are now scheduled for December 23, 2018, but about whether Kabila will step down in accordance with the constitution and allow for a credible vote.
"Congolese authorities should never interfere with independent reporting on issues of public interest," Sawyer said. "Those responsible for harassment, threats, and assaults on journalists for doing their job should be appropriately investigated and sanctioned, whatever their rank or position."