This article belongs to UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that urges Governments to address human rights challenges through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
Congolese journalist Gaël Mpoyo faces death threats for directing a 2018 documentary that dealt with the forced eviction of villagers who occupied land allegedly owned by former President Joseph Kabila, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mpoyo, an investigative journalist with more than 13 years of experience, works as a correspondent for Africa News, but before receiving the threats, he lived in Bukavu, capital of the South Kivu province, in the east of the country.
The journalist has feared for his life and the safety of his family since July 2018, when his documentary premiered in Bukavu movie theaters and posted on YouTube.
The short film entitled “Mbobero: Might is Always Right” (Mbobero: Power is always right) was filmed in Mbobero, on the outskirts of Bukavu.
Due to the climate of general insecurity, particularly in the South Kivu province where several journalists have been killed under unclear circumstances, Mpoyo and his family were forced to live in exile.
In the 27-minute short film, he interviewed the inhabitants of Mbobero, who were evicted with extreme violence – their houses demolished – from land that allegedly belongs to Kabila. Approximately 3,000 residents were forced to violently evacuate the grounds, according to an anonymous witness who spoke to Global Voices.
The documentary brings out the irregularities and tricks involved in this case, which, according to the journalist, became a true matter of State in the eyes of those involved.
Mpoyo spoke to Global Voices about the threats he received, and how they affected his work and life, since that first screening in Bukavu on July 6, 2018.
He claims that since then, he and his family have been forced to live in hiding. He also told Global Voices that the documentary aimed to tell the story of the victims. “I had to show the world what actually happened in that part of the country with real evidence.”
“In Bukavu, after concluding the projection of the video in the movie theater, some participants cried. They understood that the conditions in which the Congolese population lived on the land that former President Joseph Kabila (tried) to take were inhumane, ”he said.
Kabila managed to recover all the land that the former residents of Mborero inhabited.
As soon as the documentary was available online, the journalist started receiving threats. The film's editor, Franck Zongwe, and two human rights activists from the New Dynamics of Civil Society organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the first to warn of the evictions – also received threats.
Mpoyo told Global Voices it received a disturbing phone call from then-South Kivu province governor Claude Nyamugabo, who insisted that he “should not expose himself to danger” when screening his documentary film that, in Nyamugabo's perception, it would further enrage Kabila.
“I was demoralized when I received the call from the governor of the province, for me it was really discouraging,” he said.
During the filming of the documentary, Mpoyo sought the opinion of the local authorities, who refused and were afraid to speak out on the matter, he told Global Voices.
Under observation and threats
For the first screening of the documentary, several personalities from South Kivu were invited, but Mpoyo decided to leave the city even before it was broadcast for his own safety, as he had received threats before the premiere. While in hiding, he continued to receive threats.
Mpoyo candidly stated to Global Voices that an unidentified person sent him the following intimidating message on July 11, 2018:
Little one, stop playing with fire. You took advantage of our silence by posting your video on YouTube. Stop attacking Rais (‘president’ in Swahili) Joseph Kabila. We'll give you 24 hours to remove this YouTube item if you need to live. We know where you are hiding and we are following closely all your movements.
Little one, stop playing with fire. You took advantage of our silence by posting your video on YouTube. Cease attacks on rais (‘President’ in Swahili) Joseph Kabila. We will give you 24 hours to remove this content from YouTube if you need to live. We know where you are hiding and we closely follow your every move.
The documentary, however, is still available online and has received 21,000 views on YouTube to date.
The reason that helped me produce the documentary also helped me not remove it from the internet. This took real courage, ”Mpoyo said.
“It took courage to make it because it was a documentary considered unfavorable for the president. Many journalists were afraid to write about it. Threats awaited me ”.
Her neighbors told her that in 2018, they constantly observed suspicious people loitering around her home almost every day, at approximately 5:00 a.m. and at night around 9:00 p.m.
“Strangers watched and secured my every move. These same agents knew where I was hiding. My family was traumatized, ”he said.
The Congolese organization Journalists in Danger (JED) considered the threats against the filmmaker as “extremely serious.”
In response to these threats, international and African press freedom organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the Congolese authorities to protect filmmakers and respect press freedom. But these requests were ignored, so Mpoyo continued to receive hate messages.
Mpoyo quietly escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018 for Uganda with the help of the human rights office of the United Nations Mission in Congo and the Dutch embassy.
In 2019, the country elected a new president, Felix Tshisekedi. After his inauguration ceremony, Tshisekedi urged everyone who had left the country due to the threats to return, and promised safety.
As a displaced person in Uganda, it was not easy for Mpoyo and his family, so he decided to accept the invitation issued by the new president to return to his country and start a new life in the neighboring province of North Kivu.
Four months later, he began receiving threatening phone calls and messages again. They did not keep the president's promise.
> Mpoyo told Global Voices that even their children received threats on the way to school. Shortly after returning, he was forced to leave again for another foreign country and refused to specify his whereabouts for security reasons.
The threats and exile have been difficult for the journalist and his family. Mpoyo explained:
Life in exile is not easy. … I don't have the means to do my work properly. Being far from my country cripples my productions. Even to survive, sometimes it's complicated. It's better than living at home. I'd like to go back to the Congo, but I don't know when the situation will be resolved. '
Life in exile is not easy. … I don't have the tools to do my job properly. Being away from my country hurts my productions. Even surviving is sometimes difficult. It's better than living at home. I would like to return to the Congo, but I don't know when the situation will be solved.
He ended the interview by asking for the safety of journalists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and urged the authorities to get involved so that the nation respects the work of ethical investigative journalism and press freedom becomes a reality in the country.