Friday May 24: Friday night in Congo with Rob Ford on the wireless
Freddy Mata - fearless Country Director for Journalists for Human Rights DR Congo. (Lisa LaFlamme)
The airport arrival in Kinshasa went smoothly enough -- a 15-minute grilling by the immigration officer when he saw my visa stamped "journalist”: what was I doing here, who did I work for, where was I staying? With a lineup forming behind me, he eventually nodded me through.
Baggage claim was a different story -- well over an hour to see my luggage emerge but it offered plenty of time to watch the chaos around the jammed conveyor belt and, curiously, count the posters for Blackberry -- 22 that I could see -- obviously the Waterloo-based company's ambitions for this emerging market are current and real.
Out of the airport, Freddy Mata and Papy Angonge from JHR DR Congo were waiting patiently behind a full police barrier. I asked if I could take a photo and Freddy said not here, then laughed but he meant it.
The last time I saw Freddy he was being honoured at a JHR gala in Toronto for his extraordinary work writing about the lives of the most vulnerable here in DR Congo -- that includes just about everyone outside the political elite. He's a brave man.
Through the congested streets of Kinshasa, packed with pedestrians, motorcycles, overcrowded minivans and stuttering cars, we crawled through traffic for over an hour and made our way to the local JHR office, wonderfully located on Avenue de la Democratie -- it is literally at a crossroad.
For a city with over a hundred daily papers (most of them come and go like mushrooms) and dozens of radio and TV stations, there is little to no freedom for journalists.
Freddy gave me a quick overview of the way stories are filed and news conferences are covered -- money almost always changes hands and whichever politician is paying for the story, gets to read it BEFORE it ends up in the paper or on air.
The current flare up of violence in Goma is not being covered by one single domestic news outlet. There is no "appetite" in the government to see the daily bloodshed splashed over the airwaves.
On the drive, I received an email saying that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was about to hold a news conference after 8 days of silence. My colleague Phil Hahn held the phone up to the television in the CTV newsroom so I could listen in. Hearing Ford in a car in the Congo was a strange experience. It exposed so clearly the differences between our two cultures.
Freddy loved eavesdropping on this long distance, real time, press conference and shook his head at the idea that a story like this could ever be broadcast or published here.
It will be a long road before journalists in DR Congo can safely cover the corruption that has choked and isolated this country for so many decades.
Tomorrow we're going to the largest "private" TV station in Kinshasa -- heavily funded by a "friend" of the president. It should be interesting to get a first-hand view of how they do a newscast.