A Voice for the Voiceless in the Democratic Republic of Congo


Seraphine Mapendo interviews a woman in Walungu, South Kivu. Photo: Erin Byrnes
Seraphine Mapendo interviews a woman in Walungu, South Kivu. Photo: Erin Byrnes
Séraphine Mapendo picks out a long red, black and white tunic with a square collar and matches it with a cap and a pair of capris. She is reporting on a story outside the city.

‘You must wear pants because you never know if you could be ambushed and need to run fast,’ she says. ‘And if you’re in a pagne, (traditional skirt or dress) you could fall. You look for ways to adapt.’

While reporters in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may adjust to their circumstances, some refuse to accept limits to what they can report on. Journalists here have lost their lives because they would not stay silent about injustice and corruption. This prompted Reporters Without Borders to release a damning report in 2009 condemning the capital of South Kivu, Bukavu, as ‘Murder City.’

Determined rather than dissuaded, in December of the next year, a small group of reporters from South Kivu formed Journalists for Promoting Democracy and Human Rights (JPDDH). Their rights-focused approach highlights the disconnect between human rights laws and the abuses that broach them.

‘Impunity in Congo is a fact of daily life,’ says JPDDH Coordinator Prince Murhula, listing the names of assassinated journalists and deploring the lack of due process in their cases. ‘Often, justice is not neutral or impartial, in the sense that people peddle their influence and politicians interfere in the legal process.’

JPDDH covers stories that many other news outlets overlook or, because of their religious or political affiliation, decide not to tell. They work against entrenched discriminatory attitudes, speaking up for marginalized groups such as the indigenous Pygmy people and broaching sensitive social issues like marriage between people of different faiths. The reports and radio programs they produce are published on their website and broadcast by radio stations in South Kivu.

They have received accolades from the United Nations and Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian NGO that recognized Prince for his story about the rights of children conceived through rape.

Meager resources

Despite these endorsements, independent journalism remains relatively unprofitable and this grassroots organization struggles to survive. Last month, they pooled their personal savings to keep the office up and running. The journalists meet around a small wooden table to discuss story ideas and run practical training for interns. A person facing the small desk must stand up behind the closed door to allow someone else to enter.

There is no postal service, power cuts are regular, the internet is slow and, because users pay by the minute, very expensive. Travel is often limited to hitching rides with NGOs and a couple of quick local calls can easily cost a euro in phone credit. This is significant as full-time journalists holding coveted positions may only earn 20 to 40 euro ($25 to $50) a week.

As the President of JPDDH, Séraphine Mapendo works with a tight group of colleagues and friends who recognize her talent and ability. At her last job her employer asked her to get her husband’s permission to leave the office to conduct interviews.

On a recent overnight trip to Walungu in South Kivu, she produced three stories related to health, gender-based violence and women’s rights. Some male journalists who were also in town laughed as they told her that they had not reported the case of a woman who was raped by six men. They said the survivor shouldn’t have been talking about it.

‘In society, the problems of women are considered as just their problem, not as real social problems,’ Séraphine says. In many communities, women aren’t supposed to meet a man’s eyes and women who speak their minds are seen as indecent.

Staying neutral

In 2011 – a year that saw a contested election leave at least one newsroom in flames, Radio France Internationale suspended from the airwaves and texting outlawed – Journalists in Danger (JED) reported 160 attacks on press freedom, ranging from censorship to murder.

Prince says many journalists lost their objectivity during the disputed elections in November. In a country devastated by war and localized conflicts that continue to rage between local and foreign militias, it is hard to keep perspective. ‘The big challenge is trying to separate emotion, passion and profession,’ he says.

In an open letter to editors and media directors, Prince called on his fellow journalists to maintain their professional standards in an effort to stem the angry broadcasts that threatened to escalate the violence.

When Prince or Séraphine approaches a stranger on the street, bonds are quickly formed. ‘From the radio!’ interviewees exclaim upon hearing their names, suddenly reassured and willing to speak.

Their integrity and professionalism has earned them respect on all sides of a province marked by deep divisions and conflict.

‘This is a job with a lot of risks,’ says Séraphine. But, for her and the other journalists at JPDDH, their work is worth the pain and sacrifice. It provides a voice for the voiceless, raises awareness of overlooked issues, teaches people their rights and encourages a culture of peace and accountability.

Then there is the undeniable drive to chase down stories

‘I do it because I love it,’ says Séraphine.