Journalist-activist embodies hope for Congo
By Oakland Ross Feature Writer
It’s called coupage in French, it means something like “fleecing” in English, and it more or less defines the practice of journalism in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Or, as Congolese journalist Freddy Mata Matundu puts it, “If you don’t pay the reporter, he won’t do the story.”
Mata is talking about graft, of course — a long tradition among poorly paid Congolese scribes, who routinely insist on pocketing a bribe before effusing in print or on air about the supposedly incomparable virtues of this or that politician, entertainer, or wannabe celebrity.
“We mix journalism with publicity,” explains Mata, who excoriates the system and has stubbornly shunned it ever since he got his start in journalism as a general-assignment reporter at a large Kinshasa radio station called TopCongoFM. “I never did it. To other people, I was an idiot. Why not accept coupage?”
Because it’s wrong — that’s why.
“Children work in mines in terrible conditions, and it’s not reported,” says Mata, now 37. “That’s a violation of human rights. It must be brought to public attention. Sexual violence — no one talks about it.”
As he speaks, Mata is perched on a pastel-coloured sofa in a sun-bathed, second-floor office in Toronto’s Garment District, a very long way from the clamour and din of Kinshasa, the frenetic Congolese capital where he makes his home.
This is Mata’s second trip outside his country and only his fourth day in Canada, and he’s still adjusting to the change, a transition that’s as much cultural as spatial.
“The moment I reached the airport here, I felt a calm,” he says. “In Kinshasa, it’s full of noise. There aren’t enough people here, compared to Kinshasa.”
A lean man with close-cropped hair and a handsome, rectangular face, Mata is in Toronto to speak at a fundraising dinner at the Royal Ontario Museum on Thursday evening, an event sponsored by the Canadian chapter of Journalists for Human Rights and known as Night4Rights.
For the past two years, Mata has headed up the organization’s Congolese operation, promoting the cause of social justice among his journalistic colleagues in the capital and beyond.
“The disease (of corruption) is really deep,” he says. “I have found that what happens in the interior is even worse than what happens in Kinshasa.”
So far, he has established seven regional press clubs in six of the country’s 11 provinces, organizations that permit journalists to find strength in their numbers, enabling them to stand up to intimidation while pressing for political and social reform.
Mata also runs a centre for distressed children, many of them deaf or otherwise handicapped. This project grew out of a journalism project he undertook in 2009 — a radio exposé of so-called “sorcerer children” that explored a widespread but little-discussed phenomenon in the Congo, where superstitions exert a powerful force.
“When a man has no work, he looks for a cause,” explains Mata.
Not infrequently, people burdened by misfortune will blame their troubles on what they deem to be the diabolical influence of this or that youngster. Once identified as a sorcerer, the child will be beaten, subjected to an often violent exorcism, or cruelly ostracized.
“Priests in the evangelical churches take advantage of this,” says Mata. “They throw the children into the street or take money for an exorcism. They beat the children.”
Funded by a grant from Journalists for Human Rights and prepared in collaboration with Mozambican journalist Larissa Diakanua, Mata’s radio documentary attracted all sorts of plaudits from listeners more accustomed to dreary, coupage-inspired fare. The investigation also earned him a major European journalism prize, along with a grant equivalent to $6,300, money he used to buy some land and set up his support centre for troubled kids in Kinshasa.
Dressed in black slacks and a vibrant shirt — bursts of black, brown, and white, the sort of garment many associate with Nelson Mandela — Mata has an appealing manner, at once friendly and intense. While being interviewed, he promptly spells out unfamiliar words, letter by letter, a practice no doubt honed during his long experience as a journalist in his own country.
That country is a resource-rich but star-crossed land, with a long and brutal history of colonial exploitation, thuggish dictatorship, and deadly, opportunistic war. Millions of lives were lost during the most recent conflict, a five-year international blood-bath that ended, formally, in 2003. In fact, fighting continues in much of the Congo’s eastern terrain.
Married last year to a Kinshasa medical student named Christelle, Mata believes his country’s fate will improve — especially given international support.
“I am optimistic that things will change,” he says. “At the economic level, at the social level, things are already changing. There is more political will. The hope is there.”
Tickets for Thursday’s Night4Rights dinner featuring Freddy Mata Matundu at the ROM are available at the door. Cost: $75. The event starts at 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.night4rights.com.