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DRC curbs French radio station RFI in tension over vote count

On Monday, the authorities cut off access to the internet, a move that opposition activists said sought to gag communications and stifle transparency.

FILE: People wait to vote at Katendere polling station in Goma on 30 December 2018, during Democratic Republic of Congo's general elections. Picture: AFP.

KINSHASA – The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Wednesday said it had pulled accreditation for a French radio journalist and cut off the station’s broadcasts amid tensions over the counting of votes in crucial elections.

The authorities said accreditation for the Radio France Internationale (RFI) correspondent in Kinshasa, Florence Morice, had been withdrawn.

Government spokesperson Lambert Mende accused Morice of violating electoral law and “the code of good conduct for foreign journalists covering the elections”.

Accusing the station of stirring controversy, he said, “RFI’s broadcasts have been cut off in all of Congo’s cities.”

“We are not going to let a radio station throw petrol on the flames at a time when we are waiting for the compilation of the provisional results,” Mende said.

RFI, a French public-service broadcaster, has a very large audience in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a French-speaking country of around 80 million people.

It has been closely covering Sunday’s presidential elections and the marathon vote tally.

RFI issued a statement saying its coverage had been impartial and expressing full support for Morice.

She had been “merely working as a professional journalist,” it said, and urged the authorities to reverse their decision to withdraw her accreditation.

On Tuesday, RFI said that its broadcasts had been blocked since Monday evening.

SUSPICIONS

The elections will determine who succeeds President Joseph Kabila, at the helm of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country for nearly 18 years.

Kabila refused to step down after his two-term constitutional limit ended in 2016, sparking protests that were quelled at the cost of scores of lives.

Among the DRC’s opposition, suspicions run deep that the vote will be rigged to let his preferred successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, be declared the winner.

Shadary and two leaders of the divided opposition - Martin Fayulu and Etienne Tshisekedi - are the perceived frontrunners in the vote.

Preliminary results are due by Sunday, definitive results by 15 January, with the next head of state due to be sworn in on 18 January. Legislative and municipal elections took place alongside the presidential ballot.

Mende said RFI had been “declaring results (and) trends” as the vote count unfolded.

“Only the head of CENI can proclaim” these, he said, referring to the Independent National Electoral Commission, in charge of overseeing the elections and the count.

According to a survey by Afriscope/TNS Sofres quoted by RFI, the French radio station has 40% of listeners in the DRC.

INTERNET CUT

On Monday, the authorities cut off access to the internet, a move that opposition activists said sought to gag communications and stifle transparency.

An adviser to Kabila, Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, said the move targetted the dissemination of “fake figures” to avert a “popular uprising.”

The European Union, United States, Canada and Switzerland urged the government to restore access.

The influential Roman Catholic church, which is monitoring the election, said that the internet cut had caused it to postpone by a day an interim report on the ballot that it had expected to be published on Wednesday.

“Because of the internet cut, we gave ourselves a bit more time, given that the work has to be done by phone,” said Father Donatien Nshole, secretary general of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO).

An alliance of citizens’ group called SYMOCEL, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) also deployed observers.

The DRC has a long history of turmoil and many fear a bloodbath if the elections go badly wrong.

The mineral-rich country has never had a peaceful handover of power since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

Millions of people died from fighting, starvation and disease in two full-fledged wars between 1996 and 2003, and bloodshed marred elections in 2006 and 2011.