The Democratic Republic of the Congo

By Amber Byer


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a long history of conflict and destabilization.  The DRC was first established in 1908 as a Belgian colony and eventually gained its independence in 1960 (Africa: Congo, 2016). The country’s early years were heavily impacted by severe political and social instabilities within the region (Africa: Congo, 2016). As a result of the long-standing conflict, the country’s speech and press rights have also been affected. According to Reporters Without Borders, the DRC currently ranks 150 out of 180 countries on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index (2015 World Press, n.d.). In the last year about 60 newspapers, five radio stations and a TV station were shuttered by the information ministry displaying a growing trend in governmental censorship (2015 World Press, n.d.).

Historical Background

The DRC has had a relatively short history as an independent country having gained its independence from Belgium only 56 years ago, and much of the country’s political and economic history has been shaped by the abundance and exploitation of natural resources (Nest, Grignon, & Kisangani, 2006). Before becoming a Belgian colony in 1908, the region was given to King Leopold II during the Berlin Conference in 1884 and renamed the Congo Free State (Bobb, 1999). King Leopold’s reign was profitable but also filled with many human rights violations due to the rising demand for rubber which was abundant in the region (Gondola, 2002). During the late 1880s to early 1910s Africa went from supplying five percent to nearly half of the world’s supply of rubber (Gondola, 2002). This rise in demand would lead to many stories of genocide, child labor and maimed appendages during the king’s reign (Gondola, 2002). In the early 1900s the international population became aware of these human rights violations and after severe condemnation from much of the world, Leopold agreed to turn the CFS over to Belgium (Bobb, 1999).

After being turned over to Belgium as a colony the CFS would be renamed the Belgian Congo, but despite the name change the population would continue to be enslaved, becoming one of the most draconian regimes in Africa (Gondola, 2002). During the DRC’s time as the Belgian Congo, the Colonial Charter served as the basic constitutional document for the colony (Lemarchand, 1964). The charter allowed the Chamber to have control of the colony administration while the right to legislate for the colony belonged to the king who exercised his will through the minister of the colonies (Lemarchand, 1964). Despite the Colonial Charter, three separate forces combined to collaborate in the colony’s administration: the state, the missions and the big corporations within the colony (Gondola, 2002). During the early years of colonization, profit for the metropolis or mother country was the biggest concern for Belgium and impacted policies created within the region (Gondola, 2002). Between 1921 and 1940 industry began to expand, more and more people left their villages, and the first cities began to pop up causing tribes to become mixed (Reybrouck & Garrett, 2014). The onset of World War II played a large role in the upcoming decolonization of Africa and encouraged European leaders to grant political participation rights to their African subjects (Gondola, 2002). During the war, the Belgian Congo played a significant role in comparison to the other colonial territories (Gondola, 2002). In 1943, the Congo colonial army consisted of over 40,000 troops and the Force Publique called up reserves and new recruits to assist the Allied forces (Gondola, 2002). Following the war from about 1945 to 1956, there was a rise of ethnic nationalism within the Belgian Congo and the beginning of the Congolese evolues (Bobb, 1999). In 1959 Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba calls for independence which was finally granted during the Round Table Conference in 1960 (Bobb, 1999).

The years and decades following the DRC’s independence have been some of the bloodiest in the country’s history and have been largely unstable (Reybrouck & Garrett, 2014). The first five years of independence saw a civil war between four separate governments all with their own military backing, and the assassination of Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader (Nest et al, 2006). In November 1965, things stabilized when Joseph-Desire Mobutu staged a military coup and took control of the country (Reybrouck & Garrett, 2014). Mobutu’s rule was characterized by heavy personalization and centralization of national power (Bobb, 1999). Mobutu dominated the DRC political life for nearly 35 years, and the majority of his reign was highly authoritative with rewards for supporters and severe punishment for the opposition (Bobb, 1999). Between 1990 and 1997, the DRC saw another round of political and economic upheaval and in 1996, Laurent-Desire Kabila emerged as the leader of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (Gondola, 2002). In 1997, Kabila and the AFDL forces overtook Mobutu’s regime allowing Kabila to take over leadership (Gondola, 2002). Kabila’s regime was riddled with flagrant human rights violations and in 1998 the second Congolese war began (Gondola, 2002). In 2001, Kabila was assassinated, and his son Joseph Kabila took over as president (Gondola, 2002). Joseph Kabila successfully initiated a transitional government in 2003 and a constitutional referendum in 2005. He was elected to the presidency during democratic elections in 2006 and was reelected to the presidency with disputed results in 2011 (Africa: Congo, 2016).

 Free Speech

Speech was fairly regulated during colonial times, and those who dissented against colonial leadership were harshly punished (Gondola, 2002). In 1921 religious leader Simon Kimbangu was sentenced to death (which was later commuted to life in prison) for sedition and civil disobedience (Gondola, 2002). During Mobutu’s reign, following DRC independence from Belgium, dissent was effectively muzzled, and those who voiced their opposition were discredited (Gondola, 2002). In 1966 during Mobutu’s reign, an autonomous student movement called the Union Generale des Etudiants Congolais (UGEC) was created in opposition to the government (Gondola, 2002). The UGEC was dealt with harshly by the president and in 1969 during a staged demonstration, the military was dispatched and quickly turned violent, killing around 100 unarmed student demonstrators (Gondola, 2002). Later in Mobutu’s reign, any form of dissent or opposition was punishable by imprisonment and death effectively curbing speech rights (Gondola, 2002). The subsequent reign of Laurent Kabila was much the same for free speech issues and saw the implementation of “People Committees” which were responsible for monitoring the activities of citizens, schools and workplaces (Gondola, 2002). This time period also saw a crackdown on any opposition, human rights advocates and journalists who opposed the regime (Gondola, 2002).

In more recent history the 2005 constitution and laws within the DRC have provided for freedom of speech and press, but these rights are largely limited by President Joseph Kabila and his administration (Congo, n.d.). According to a 2011 article on “Freedom of assembly, association and expression are limited in the context of “protecting public order””. In 2011, a five-day ban was put in place on all political protests and police used tear gas and firearms to end protests related to an upcoming election, particularly targeting opposition supports (Congo Bans, 2011). In January 2015, further crackdowns on assembly resulted in the deaths of 36 demonstrators when police fired into a crowd protesting proposed changes to electoral laws that would allow Kabila to stay in office past the two-term limit (36 People Killed, 2015). These widespread crackdowns continued following the death of demonstrators in March when more than 40 opposition activists were arrested during a press conference promoting the civic engagement of the DRC’s youth (DRC, 2015).

Free Press

During the colonial era, the press was limited and up until around 1959, the only newspapers available to the Congolese were being published by missionary societies and the Belgian administration (Lemarchand, 1964). During Laurent Kabila’s regime, the DRC saw a serious suppression of journalists and reporters who opposed the president’s rule (Gondola, 2002). More recently media outlets have been controlled by the High Council for Broadcasting and Communication, which has repeatedly been criticized as being political biased and ignoring free press issues (Congo, n.d.). Throughout recent years and much of 2014, criminal defamation and libel laws have been used as tools to detain and intimidate journalists within the DRC (Congo, n.d.). In 2010, three opposition radio and TV stations were silenced without explanation for 48 hours before being allowed to return to broadcasting (Congo: Television, 2010). In 2012, a French radio station was shut down and banned from broadcasting by DRC authorities after its coverage of violent results in the 2011 elections (DRC: Radio, 2012).  Another attempt to censor the media came in May 2014 when media outlets in urban-rural southeast DRC were prohibited from publishing or broadcasting political or administrative statements made by traditional leaders without the explicit authorization of political and administrative authorities (DRC Media, 2014). Certain media outlets have also shown overwhelming political bias as was seen in the presidential election between Joseph Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba when Kabila was given a 90 percent coverage time versus Bemba’s 10 percent providing a clear advantage for Kabila (Frere, 2011). The DRC is currently showing a trend of increasing censorship with the newspapers being shuttered for lack of registration and journalists being harassed and censored by government authorities and security forces (Congo, n.d.). At this time, the internet is not restricted or monitored by the government (Congo, n.d.). However, only two percent of the population currently has access to this media resource (Congo, n.d.).

Critical Comparison

The contrast of free speech and press rights between the United States and the DRC is a stark one. While the DRC has the pretense of these rights within their 2005 constitution, they are widely considered to be at the whim of President Kabila and his administration (Congo, n.d.). In comparison, free speech and press rights in the United States are closely protected by the First Amendment, which also includes the right to assembly. These rights have continued to be recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court throughout the years in many cases. Unlike in the DRC where prior restraint and censorship of the press has become common, the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to protect press rights through cases such as New York Times v United States (1971). Through this case, the U.S. Supreme Court continued to follow the precedence set in Near v. Minnesota (1930), for barring prior restraint and censorship of the press except under very narrow circumstances relating to wartime activities and information such as troop movements or locations (New York, 1971).

Another area where the DRC and the United States differ greatly is in the protection of the right to assembly and expression. Throughout recent history in the DRC the government and police forces of President Kabila have dealt with opposition and protestors in a violent manner and have even gone so far as to completely prohibit protests for periods of time (Congo Bans, 2011). The United States, on the other hand, has mostly sought to protect the right to free assembly and expression. This protection can be seen through cases like Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) where the U.S. Supreme ruled in favor of KKK leader Clarence Brandenburg, citing his right to free assembly and expression of ideas whether others agreed or not. This case resulted in the imminent lawless action standard. Under this standard speech that is meant to incite violation of a law and that violation is both likely and imminent is not protected by the First Amendment (Brandenburg, 1969). Another case where the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of the constitutional right to assembly and expression is Snyder v. Phelps (2011), in which the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket a soldier’s funeral and express their ideas no matter how repulsive those ideas were. The United States also does not use lethal force on protestors or demonstrators although they occasionally employ the use of non-lethal forces such as pepper spray and rubber bullets while the DRC has been known to fire directly into crowds.

The ability to censor the press and citizens through defamation or libel is also much harder in the United States than in the DRC. Criminal defamation and libel laws are routinely used within the DRC to detain or intimidate journalists and guarantee their silence, particularly when it relates to government officials (Congo, n.d.). Within the United States, the press is often protected from these types of lawsuits thanks to the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this case set a precedence requiring public figures and officials to prove actual malice (the publication of material despite knowledge that the information is false) when bringing libel suits against the press (New York, 1964). As we have seen in cases like Near v. Minnesota (1930), the United States also does not regularly shut down newspapers, radio or TV stations due to the pretense of “public concern” unlike the DRC, which has shut down numerous media outlets in the last year (2015 World Press, n.d.). The one area where the United States and the DRC are alike is in the absence of regulation of the internet and its content. However, a much larger portion of the United States has access to the internet than the DRC.


Since obtaining its independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has made very little progress toward achieving civil rights such as free speech or free press. Despite the implementation of successful elections and a move towards democracy in 2006, the country continues to struggle with issues of governmental censorship and violent suppression of any opposition movements. Looking at the country’s history and current affairs it is very obvious why the country is currently classified as not free by outlets such as Reporters Without Borders and Compared to the United States the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a long way to go in improving its rights regarding speech, press, assembly and expression. However, the current government’s tendency to lean towards censorship and suppression indicates these changes are a long way off.


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Nest, M. W., Grignon, F., & Kisangani, E. F. (2006). The Democratic Republic of Congo: economic dimensions of war and peace. Boulder, Colo. : Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006

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This essay was last updated April 30, 2016

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