The Democratic Republic of Congo came back online recently when the Government finally restored the internet after imposing a three-week shutdown. Officials said the shutdown was needed to prevent a ‘popular uprising’ in the wake of contested elections. RNW Media’s Habari RDC platform in Congo relies on the internet to reach and engage with its audience. Lemien Saka, blogger and editor with Habari DRC, describes the way he and other Congolese coped with the situation.
DRC: victims of cyber brutality
by Lemian Saka
You could say we’re used to it. Some Congolese even prepared for the expected internet shutdown by downloading VPN (virtual private network) applications. Unfortunately we hadn’t taken the government’s determination into account and VPNs were no use as access to overseas IP addresses was also blocked. We rapidly realised everything was down – no mobile internet, no text messages, no ringing phones.
Crossing borders to connect
Different people found different ways of coping. For those based in Kinshasa, it was a quick boat ride across the river border to Congo-Brazaville where internet access could be had for a price. Local dealers in data packages tripled their prices overnight and it was $50 for a few precious hours of connectivity. In Goma, crossing the border to Rwanda was the solution but again, a time-consuming and expensive one, especially for Goma’s large student population.
Personal networks in Lubumbashi
Quick trips to neighbouring countries weren’t an option for those based in the central city of Lubumbashi. Journalist and Habari contributor Didier Makai turned to his personal network.
“The solution was to call, to discover places that were still connected. Upmarket hotels, or public administration offices dependent on the Internet in their work. But it was risky – people feared reprisals if they had been identified as providing unauthorised access to locals.”
And in the end, Didier realised, there wasn’t actually much point going online even if it was possible. Without being able to interact with friends, colleagues, other journalists the internet lost its charm.
“For the first time, I realised the Internet is defined in relation to others and not oneself alone”
Newsrooms doing their best to get by
Online media is becoming more and more influential in DRC and journalists struggled during the shutdown. At Habari RDC, we relied on a very small team of three staff members living abroad who did the work of a hundred people – bloggers, editors, community managers and web master – as best they could. Needless to say there was a huge decline in comments and discussion on Twitter and Facebook. The importance of our audience hit home – publishing without being read is worse than doing nothing.
Some journalists and correspondents from local and international media set up headquarters in upmarket hotels. Only paying guests had access to a connection so this was an option reserved for those organisations with generous budgets. Others moved temporarily to Rwanda to report on the situation in DRC from there.
The government tried to justify the shutdown as necessary to fight fake news – but the effect was the opposite. In the absence of genuine, trustworthy information, rumours and fake news flourished. And the shutdown not only undermined freedom of expression and the press but also banks, telecoms, start-ups – with huge economic consequences. During the shutdown a year ago in January 2018, the loss to DRC’s economy was estimated at between $1.5 and 2 million per day.
We Congolese journalists are expecting the worst. If nothing changes the government will feel entitled to repeat such shutdowns again and again. While others talk about cybercrime, in DRC we are living in an era of ‘cyber-brutality’.