Harper's Congo Trip Prompts Safety Fears For Politicians And Media

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is prompting security fears. (AFP/Getty Images/CP)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is prompting security fears. (AFP/Getty Images/CP)

OTTAWA - It's not every day that the prime minister visits one of the world's most dangerous countries, or that members of the media travelling with him are warned to keep their lens caps on their cameras for their own safety.

Stephen Harper, two federal ministers, the premiers of Quebec and New Brunswick and a gaggle of journalists and officials will travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) later this week.

According to the 2012 Global Peace Index, which gauges factors including safety, security and internal conflict, the DRC is the fifth least peaceful place on earth — after Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. Tens of thousands of women and girls have been victims of sexual violence there.

The Department of Foreign Affairs still advises against "non-essential travel" to the DRC, and warns of "endemic criminality."

When the location for the Francophonie summit was announced as Kinshasa two years ago, eyebrows were raised among Francophonie member nations. At the time, the summit was being held in Switzerland because the original host country of Madagascar had tumbled into civil unrest.

The alarm about Kinshasa was raised even further after presidential elections were marred by irregularities last winter, and rebel violence flared in the eastern part of the nation.

But Canada, France and other nations decided to support the location of the summit as a way to put pressure on the government of Joseph Kabila to strengthen democratic institutions and the protection of human rights.

It was a markedly different approach than the one Harper took with regards to Sri Lanka hosting the 2013 meeting of Commonwealth leaders. In that case, Harper has said he would boycott the even if the government didn't pursue an investigation of human rights abuses inflicted on civilians at the end of that country's civil war.

The leader of the main opposition party in the DRC, Etienne Tshisekedi, has called for protests on the opening day of the summit Friday on some of Kinshasa's main thoroughfares. Previous protests after last November's elections had been prohibited or violently broken up.

And so, serious security concerns are still an issue for the group accompanying Harper.

During Tuesday's briefing, the prime minister's chief spokesman Andrew MacDougall detailed some of the precautions the media should take.

Among them is the suggestion not to take pictures or video of scenes outside the summit. MacDougall noted that the Congolese government places restrictions on what can be filmed — especially members of the police or military.

"If you want to avoid hassles, don't take pictures," said MacDougall.

Even locations for television journalists to do their on-camera reports must be cleared 24 hours in advance as part of strict protocols. Access to the site where the leaders of the Francophonie nations are meeting is being severely restricted — it's uncertain whether any reporter other than a still photographer and television camera operator from Canada will be allowed entry.

Other tips included travelling in pairs, avoiding isolated areas, sticking close to the hotel, and taking care when talking to someone who claims to be police or military personnel. A copy of one's passport must be easily accessible at any time, and big groups of protesters should be avoided.

"It's going to be tough, I'm not going to lie," said MacDougall.

As for Harper's own security, MacDougall said those types of details are never discussed.

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