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Solange Lusiku Nsimire — The Congolese journalist who fought corruption and championed women

Wmc Features Solange Lusiku Nsmire Le Souverain 112718
Award-winning journalist Solange Lusiku Nsimire persisted in the face of threats and violence. Photo courtesy of Le Souverain.

Women journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and reporters and human rights activists across the world have been in mourning since the death of Solange Lusiku Nsimire last month. Lusiku Nsimire, who died of a short illness at 46, was the first woman to run a written newspaper in the DRC’s eastern South Kivu Province and had won several international awards, including the International Women’s Media Foundation’s (IWMF) 2014 Courage in Journalism Award. 

“As an independent journalist, and both editor-in-chief and publisher of the newspaper Le Souverain, she was unwavering in her often solitary commitment to hard-hitting stories in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz in an email to WMC. “The DRC is perhaps one of the most volatile countries in Africa when it comes to human rights; most notably, crimes against humanity, sexual violence, and rigged elections. Solange sought to abolish this climate of censorship and fear.”

Lusiku Nsimire was a driven and passionate reporter, according to her former colleagues. Yves Kulondwa first met Lusiku Nsimire in 2014, when she hired him to work as a cartoonist at Le Souverain. His boss “always said that she entered journalism by chance, and she fell in love with it,” Kulondwa told WMC. After high school, Lusiku Nsimire started working as a secretary at a women’s development organization. There she met Aziza Bangwene, a journalist at the Congolese radio station Maendeleo. “Little by little, [Lusiku Nsimire] took a liking to the radio and began to frequent it regularly,” said Kulondwa. She started reporting, first for Maendeleo and then for Radio Maria, the radio station of the Catholic Church.

In 2007, when Lusiku Nsimire inherited Le Souverain from its former owner and publisher, the paper existed in name only. “At that moment, the newspaper had only the title. No material, no room, not even a pen!” Lusiku Nsimire brought it to life, and the outlet is now published monthly.

The first day he visited the newsroom, Kulondwa sat in on an editorial meeting, which included 12 people, nine of them men. Lusiku Nsimire encouraged everyone — especially the two other women in the room — to express their ideas, he recalled. “Although some of the men who were present in the meeting were older than her, a certain respect and admiration could be read in their way of talking to her.”

Asked what stories of Lusiku Nsimire’s he most remembered, Kulondwa recalled her reporting on femmes twangeuses, or women who work in the mines. “In her report, she raises the fact that NGOs only provide support to women who are victims of rape and sexual violence, a ‘prominent’ and ‘profitable’ sector, and they ignore other women who are also languishing in misery,” he said. Solange also wrote about the routine discrimination women face when they opt to enter certain professional and political spheres.

In interviews, Lusiku Nsimire said she’d observed the power of Congolese women from the time she was a little girl, and that gave her the strength to do her work. “I saw women who were victims of all kinds of injustices and still, in spite of that, were fighters,” she said in a 2014 interview with NPR. “That's what gave me the will to be a journalist, and not just any journalist, but a journalist who is a fighter, who expresses herself freely, who keeps her head up high.”

Addressing the experiences of women in the Congo is at the very core of Le Souverain’s mission. The outlet’s slogan is the “Journal of the Promotion of Democracy and Women,” Kulondwa told WMC, and every issue includes a profile of a woman working to promote the public good.

Doing her work has placed Lusiku Nsimire and many other reporters in the DRC in danger. Freedom of the press is “severely restricted” in the country, and “journalists and media outlets who challenge powerful figures or cover protests and other controversial events run the risk of prosecution, harassment, and attack, including by members of the security services,” according to the human rights organization Freedom House. Reporters Without Borders ranks the DRC 154th on its 2017 World Freedom Press Index, marking it as one of the most repressive countries in the world in which to be a journalist.

Eager to thwart her exposés of wrongdoing, state authorities and members of civil society repeatedly threatened both Lusiku Nsimire and her family over the course of her career. “Once, I personally witnessed the direct phone threats of the city's governor, Marcellin Cishambo,” recalled Kulondwa. “He had called her to the office, and threatened to ruin her career, and hurt her.” Sometimes the violence turned real. In 2008, her home was attacked three times, including one instance in which her husband and children were tied up and interrogated by armed men, who told them they had to reveal the location of Solange. “Lusiku Nsimire lied about her identity, pleading ignorance and telling them that she was a shoe saleswoman named Chantal,” according to a profile of the journalist previously published by the IWMF. The family decided to move, yet even then the violence didn’t stop. In 2012, after she penned an editorial claiming that Rwanda was driving the instability in Eastern Congo, Lusiku Nsimire again faced threats on her life. She left South Kivu for three months with her two-year-old child.

Fidel Bafilemba said what he most remembered about Lusiku Nsimire was her bravery. Bafilemba is a longtime human rights activist in the DRC who first met the journalist in 2008, when she visited a displaced persons’ camp that he was helping to run in the eastern part of the country. She was as “an embodiment of journalist independence in a country where auto-censorship has become the norm because if you don’t censor your reports, the government secret services will teach you how to in their nefarious jails,” he told WMC.

Bafilemba recalled when Lusiku Nsimire published an investigation into the misappropriation of public funds in South Kivu. She received death threats after publishing the work, and the Congolese government temporarily banned Le Souverain from being distributed across South Kivu province, he said.

She felt that being a reporter was her calling. “I am writing, every day, the story of Eastern Congo, the story of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I am contributing toward building our collective memory,” Lusiku Nsimire told NPR in 2014. “Our challenge is to create a written testimony so that future generations, when they want to figure out what happened in the past, can find this based on true, valid information. They can reconstruct the collective memory that made us.”

Lusiku Nsimire died in Kinshana on October 14. She is survived by her husband and seven children. The journalists and staff at Le Souverain are committed to ensuring the outlet continues to publish, said Kulondwa, “and thus honor the work and memory of Solange.”

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