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Africa

DRC restricts internet, press as presidential results trickle in

media A vendor assists a client to recharge her cell phone airtime at an open air stall in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo January 1, 2019. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

Internet connectivity in the vast central African state has been disrupted since Monday, following DRC's long-delayed presidential election. The restrictions, meant to avert "chaos", according to officials, have also impacted broadcasts by RFI and TV5 Monde.

Subscribers to the four major networks in the country: Orange, Airtel, Tigo and Vodacom, have been unable to browse the internet from their smartphones and mobile devices since Monday.

The operators say they cut web access on government orders.

The restrictions mean that users are unable to send text messages, or connect to social networks such as Whatsapp and Facebook from their phones.

The government said the restrictions were necessary to prevent the circulation of fake results online, and to avert “chaos” and a “popular uprising.”

The crackdown on fake news was one of the arguments advanced by authorities to ban RFI reporter Florence Morice, whom they accuse of reporting unofficial results of the presidential election and stirring controversy. RFI’s Chief Editor has vehemently rejected these accusations.

Cécile Mégie, director of RFI

RFI has been covering the election extensively, but since Monday evening, our broadcasts have been jammed. A move that has angered activists like Espoir Ngalukiye from the LUCHA youth movement based in the eastern city of Goma.

"In DRC, many people listen to RFI. Our government doesn't like our country in the papers," he told RFI.

Electoral hold-up, media restrictions

He, like other Congolese, fear that the internet cuts and restrictions on the press will pave the way for an electoral fraud in a presidential election already marred by delays and violence.

"The government failed the elections. They think that we can inform people around the country and the world about the electoral hold-up. They are trying to prevent us," comments Ngalukiye.

Government spokesperson Lambert Mende turned down our request for an interview to respond to these allegations.

Meanwhile, the ban on RFI's correspondent also triggered reactions from Congo's powerful Catholic Church on Wednesday: "We feel utter desolation," says Father Donatien Nshole, the spokesperson of the National Episcopal Electoral Conference of Congo (CENCO).

"The same shock we felt about the internet disruption, is the same shock we feel now to hear that RFI is no longer on our airwaves," he told RFI, after popular outlets like TV5 Monde too saw their broadcasts restricted.

"Freedom of expression no longer holds value in a country that calls itself democratic," he says.

French authorities Thursday urged Kinshasa to respect press freedom, restore internet access and RFI broadcasts, insisting this was "a key element" for the "credibility" of Sunday's election.

The restrictions have impacted the monitoring process.

Some 40,000 monitors from Congo's powerful Catholic Church were one of the few observers allowed to monitor Sunday's vote in nearly 80,000 voting centres. However, their report on how the process went has been pushed back until Thursday due to lack of internet.

"The internet disruption means that we are unable to collect the remaining findings," explains CENCO spokesperson, Father Donatien Nshole.

"Having the internet would have allowed our election observers to send us their reports quicker by phone or email," he told RFI.

Ordinary people affected

Meanwhile, Congolese residents are having to come up with ingenious ways of getting around the internet restrictions.

"I use two ways," comments activist Ngalukiye, "either I go to a cyber café, which uses satellite internet, but it's very expensive," he says.

He, like other residents are resorting to buying credit from other telecom operators in neighbouring Rwanda to get online.

"As we are not rich, I'm obliged to be connected with Rwanda's network," adds Ngalukiye. "I'm a citizen of DRC, but virtually I’m like a Rwandan citizen because I use the Internet of Rwanda. I can’t work without internet. I’m a community manager and now I’m jobless," he said.

Meanwhile, the country nervously awaits the results of Sunday's highly-contested presidential election.

The country's electoral commission said Tuesday that provisional results would be announced on Sunday. However, in a new twist, the body announced Thursday, that it may have to postpone publication until later.

"We are working around the clock. We are doing our best to publish the results on January 6. But if we can't, we can't," said Corneille Nangaa, head of the Independent National Election Commission (CENI).

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