Journalism in conflict: “For the sake of peace, whatever it costs…”

Louisa Esther Mugabo is an Erasmus Mundus MA student at Swansea University, specialising in War and Conflict Reporting. Since her undergraduate studies in Political Science and African Studies in Germany and Spain, her work has focused on the Great Lakes Region of Africa, in particular mainly Rwanda, the DR Congo and Burundi.

Swansea student Louis Mugabo

Protected from the sun under the banana-leaf-roof of a local bar, Daniel Shematsi describes his life as a journalist. He is in Goma, the capital of the province North-Kivu in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He waits for the noise of the daily circulating UN-helicopter to pass. “For the sake of peace” he says, the news must reported, “whatever it costs.”

Daniel is the director of Radio Masheben FM, a communal radio station in Masisi, a territory in southern North-Kivu. The nearest big city is Goma, a three hour motorcycle ride away along muddy streets where cars and buses rarely pass. “Journalism in Masisi is not journalism in Goma” he says; in the area he lives and works in, journalism “is another reality”.

This other reality includes constant danger. As a citizen in a war-torn area, you would be naturally fearful of the nightly attacks from heavily-armed rebel groups. For journalists, the danger is even greater. Gone are the days when they are respected as impartial observers there to report the truth; Daniel and his journalist colleagues are routinely targeted by politicians, the military, church members, citizens, or rebel groups. In fact, they are targeted at different times by whoever they report on.

The threat is very real. Daniel recalls armed men arriving threatening to kill him in front of his wife and baby daughter. “I was told that if I continued reporting on a certain issue, they would kill me.” Prioritising survival over his work, Daniel left the area for a while before restarting his call for peace within his radio journalism. Adhering to key pillars of journalism like ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ in order to protect citizens and expose corrupt politicians he argues, are often wishful objectives when your friends are being tortured.

If these threats to one’s safety were not enough, there are practical complications to deal with too.  Access to information – crucial for any journalist to produce objective reporting – is often lacking. Such information is only accessible in Goma where politicians meet, international organizations are based and press conferences take place. For journalists like Daniel, travelling there regularly is impractical and so he must rely on second-hand information that might have already been compromised. Even then, Daniel only has access to the internet on some days when he is lucky. Other basic tools that western journalists take for granted such as computers, recorders or cameras are often simply not available.

One can only imagine how good they would be with all the trappings of modern newsgathering. Nonetheless, Daniel tries to apply international journalistic standards alongside these watchwords of ‘objectivity’, and ‘professionalism’. The reality for him and those like him though, means that sometimes he has to do things differently. Also, he adds starkly, “…we have to survive”.

With constant repression, the threat of imminent death, injury or unjustified imprisonment, and a lack of information, equipment and infrastructure all representing major obstacles to being able to function as a proper journalist, I ask Daniel if he has ever thought about giving up. He is fiercely resolute. “No, never”, he replies, “I can’t just stop helping my community.”

A couple of days after our conversation, Daniel sent me a picture of himself, surrounded by children, sitting on a wooden bench on a hill overlooking Masisi. Their smiling faces seemed to indicate a world at peace. But we know that there are stories behind every such picture. Striving for peace and using all the makeshift journalistic tools he can get hold of, Daniel walked two days through the bush to reach these children to tell the story of how they were being denied access to school. In the same way that he has not abandoned these children, his plea is that the world does not abandon the community he represents in the land that he loves.

Not too long after we met, Daniel was forced to flee from Masisi, in fear of his life. His story is an important reminder that context is everything, and that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for being a journalist. For Daniel and others like him, reporting the things happening around them might literally be a case of life and death.