BRAZZAVILLE: Boris Iloy Ibara, the News Director of Télé Congo, the state run TV, has a spacious office in the heavily guarded and half empty five-story structure built by the Chinese and inaugurated just six years ago. Boris says if the opposition is absent from his programs, it is because they don’t have the money to pay for the slot. He admits his reporters will take anywhere from $100 to $2000 dollars from the politicians they cover to do the story. However, he denies he has orders to censor the opposition.
Nevertheless, for the ten straight days I watched the news, if the opposition were covered at all, it was to editorially discredit it, while not a bridge could be built, a school inaugurated, nor a hospital bed made without thanking President Denis Sassou Nguesso.
To counter-balance the omni-presence of the President and his ‘majority’, Boris says the opposition can buy time after the news in what the Congolese call «No Comment» but would be better labeled «Open Microphone» or «Paid Political Propaganda.» A five minute spot costs from $300 to $500.
Pascal Zoundama of the UPADS opposition says their paid spots are broadcast at 10:30 p.m. when the poor areas of Brazzaville are without electricity. «They even broadcast a spot at three in the morning.» Zoudama said. «Once we gave them 35 000 CFA francs ($70) to cover an event we were holding and they told us it was not enough.»
«Journalists just won’t come if you don’t pay them to cover the event,» says Moke Loamba of the ADHUC Human Rights group. And this goes for the private press as well: pro-government and opposition.
Numerous reporters in both Brazzaville and Pointe Noire defended taking money from the people they cover «because our salaries are too low to live on.» The starting salary for a reporter is 90 000 CFA francs ($180) a month.
«There is no way anything will be broadcast if it displeases the ruling power,» says Raymond Mviri of the Alliance for Democracy and the Republic, an opposition group. «When we sold programs and speeches on CDs to people in the popular areas, the recordings were seized by police and the vendors arrested.»
The plurality in Congo’s TV world is limited and remains firmly under the control of the President and his supporters.
There are three TV stations in Brazzaville and in Pointe Noire. State run Télé Congo; MNTV which is owned by the President’s son Maurice; and DRTV which is owned by Sassou faithful, General Norbert Dabirat, whose case for Crimes against Humanity is going through the French judicial system. The Inspector General of the Armed Forces is the prime suspect in the disappearance of more than 350 people in Brazzaville in May 1999.
It is not clear how Maurice Nguesso and Norbert Dabirat find the financing to run their stations. A 30 second publicity spot goes for roughly $100 and the market is extremely limited. They do have numerous business interests and property which human rights activists say were obtained by pillaging the country’s wealth.
With 52 publications, not all printed regularly, Congo has a vibrant and, at times, virulent newspaper culture centered in the capital. This press suffers from a total lack of transparency in government finances, the impossibility to obtain official documents and ministers who refuse to answer questions. The lack of professional training, has led many of these papers to report rumor as fact without any verification, opening themselves to government intervention.
To keep the print press in check is the Superior Council for Freedom of Communication run by Philippe Mvouo, a High School French teacher who has the power to ban, suspend and fine newspapers and reporters with no judicial oversight. «Violence runs in your Bellicist intentions,» Mvouo warned the opposition on May 13. «Know that the war of guns begins with the war of words.»
Those who oppose a change in the constitution which would allow Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term next year are accused of «dividing the nation» and «setting the course for another civil war» which many understandably take as a direct threat.
Of course in a country like Congo it is radio which reaches everybody. There are roughly 80 stations in the country. But state-run Radio Congo only comes in second. The most listened to is Radio France International, a sign the Congolese are thirsty for better news.
While politicians of the ruling parties pay to see their faces on TV and the opposition pay to complain that they don’t get the proper coverage, a revolution is taking place. Godefroy Yombi, the Managing Director of state run Radio Congo is opening his antennae to all the voices in the country. Human Rights activists and opposition politicians are getting air time along side the standing figures of state for the first time.
«I get calls from PCT party members telling me the opposition has no right on our radio as if it were the private property of Sassou and his party,» says Yombi. So far, he has not been called to order by the Minister of Communication.
There may be two explanations to why this is happening. First, although most people cannot watch TV news even if they have a TV set because they have no electricity in the evening, politicians are too preoccupied with watching themselves on TV to notice what’s happening on the radio.
The other reason is cracks are forming within the Sassou empire and even the RDPS, the third party in the coalition, has said «no» to a reform of the constitution. The President, his family and many of his lieutenants are being targeted by anti-corruption activists around the world who want to see them taken before the international court. One senior ministry official who rode the waves of successive dictatorships, expressed his desire to leave the country with his family and asked if I could not find him a job in France.
This new breach in the wall has not gone unnoticed by the opposition press. With the Africa Games to be held in Brazzaville just three months away, eyes are turned towards the Congo. Sassou Nguesso and his kin may find it costly to their image, and to expected profits from the games, if they crack down heavily on the press.