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INTERVIEW: Battling fake news for peace and security in DR Congo

MONUSCO/Michael Ali - SRSG Bintou Keita meets with disaster-affected people in Kalehe, South Kivu.

Misinformation poses a significant risk to UN peacekeeping operations. Allowed to fester, it not only damages the perception of a mission and creates confusion about the role of ‘blue helmets’, it can also put their lives in jeopardy.

Bintou Keita, the UN Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and head of the UN mission there (MONUSCO), underscores that armed groups deliberately propagate falsehoods to incite discontent against the mission.  

They do so because they have a vested interest in preventing MONUSCO from being a witness to their actions, she told UN News in an in-depth interview shortly after briefing the UN Security Council, which oversees all peacekeeping missions worldwide.

She described how MONUSCO is combating misinformation and disinformation in the field, and engaging with young people to empower them to prevent the spread of false information.

She updated ambassadors on the situation in the country, in light of President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo's call at the UN General Debate last week, for the mission to expedite its planned withdrawal.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

MONUSCO/Kevin Jordan - A MONUSCO team on a community engagement mission in Uvira and Sange, South Kivu.

UN News: At the recent general debate, the President of DRC said that it was imperative to accelerate the withdrawal of MONUSCO. Do you agree with him that the current situation requires an acceleration of a withdrawal?

Bintou Keita: Just to frame the conversation, the notion of acceleration is important, but what is also important is the fact that the Mission, MONUSCO, has already been moving out of numerous provinces in DRC. For example, we have withdrawn from the Kasai province in June 2021. We also withdrew from the Tanganyika province in June 2022. 

And for the size of the country, where there are 26 provinces, MONUSCO is now deployed in only three provinces, Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, and these are the three provinces where there are active conflicts with armed groups – both local armed groups and also foreign ones.

So, the acceleration of our departure or withdrawal from the DRC will be from these three provinces, and it is going to happen in conversation and dialogue with the national authorities and the provincial authorities, in order to decide, based on the hotspots where the Mission is providing protection to the population. And there are not enough army or not enough police to make sure that they are going to be present. At the moment we are withdrawing and they are going to be in charge and take over the task of protecting the population. That is going to happen pretty soon because we have an understanding that it is a joint endeavor, one is going up the national authorities; and one is going out, which is MONUSCO.

In DRC, the 26 provinces have 145 territories [administrative sub-division], of those 26 provinces and we are in three. The hotspots that we are looking at in the three provinces, when we talk about territories, it is more or less 15 to 20 territories where we have really to nail down the issue of physical protection of the population, because we also do protection through other means, which is advocacy that is the civilian component of the Mission to work with the provincial as well as the national authorities.

MONUSCO/Michael Ali - Ms. Keita speaks with the media in Kalehe, South Kivu.

UN News: Demonstrations have been organized against MONUSCO. Do you think that the role of peacekeepers is misunderstood and that misinformation plays a part in the perception of the Mission’s role?

Bintou Keita: I think yes, because there is a disconnect between the population’s expectations regarding the implementation of the mandate and particularly the one which has to do with the Force, because this is a part that is the physical protection of the population. 

The population is of the view that if any person loses his or her life or in the presence of the MONUSCO Force, it means that MONUSCO is not doing its job properly. This is of course a huge disconnect, because the reality is that physical protection is the proximity and the presence, and it is also disarming in a number of ways the armed groups to come closer to the population.

The disinformation is part of the expressions of anger and frustration from the population but it is also manipulation from a number of organizations because they have an interest to tarnish the legitimacy of the presence of MONUSCO as well as that they are interested in not having the Mission as a witness to some of the things that they are doing in the three provinces.

UN News: Do you have a specific example of actions taken by MONUSCO to fight disinformation?

Bintou Keita: Yes, since last year we have increased the way we are tackling disinformation. One of such activities is through workshops with young people where our colleagues in communication are training the young people to understand the difference between fake news, disinformation and misinformation. 

We are training young people to decide, to make a pause, a stop and ask – Can I share this? Yes or no 

We are training them to decide, to make a pause, a stop and ask – “Can I share this? Yes or no”. 

And when I see the reaction of the young people it looks like it is holding, they become more aware of the social media – which in a way is where everything goes, including lies and fabricated fake news.

Just to give you one example, while the high level segment of the General Assembly was going on, I was in Kinshasa when somebody decided to create fake news which was a photo of me from I think three years ago, when I was the Assistant Secretary-General for Africa [at the UNHQs], in New York and had the text which was saying basically that I, as the head of MONUSCO, was resisting the departure of the Mission. This is untrue because, first of all, I was not here at the at the General Assembly. I was in Kinshasa. 

We had a discussion on what do we do, do we do we say that this is fake? What do we do at the end? I think the colleagues decided, OK, it is fake and it went. 

One of the things that matters most is the monitoring of social media, and MONUSCO colleagues now have fortnightly reports each month to see the trends and the discussions related to MONUSCO and with the support of colleagues here in at UNHQs in New York, they are really helping us in shaping in a certain way, the narrative about what the Mission is doing and what the Mission is not about.

MONUSCO/Lydie Betyna  - A MONUSCO official speaks at an interaction with the local community on participation of women in peace building, in Kinshasa.

UN News: My last question is about the elections. The elections are planned for the end of this year. What kind of support MONUSCO provides to the authorities to organize these elections?

Bintou Keita: We have different roles:

One of the roles is to provide logistic support to the Electoral Commission, specifically, in the three provinces where we are deployed – in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu – which we are doing.

Second is to the advocacy to ensure that the parameters and the principles to ensure the quality of elections, which has to do with the transparency and credibility of the election, the peacefulness of the conduct and inclusivity. If we see acts, words or interventions that are not in line with those principles, we will be talking to all the stakeholders, wherever and whoever they are. And we do this not just alone, we do this with partners, the diplomatic community in the DRC and also civil society organizations, so that it is a joint and collective effort.

We are also planning, alongside the Ministry of Interior, for election security. The way we are doing this is to have our expert embedded within a technical working group under the Ministry’s stewardship. 

We also have a lot going on with regard to inclusion in the election, particularly in the implementation of Security Council 1325, where for us the representation of women, the participation of women, is absolutely key, be it as voter or as a candidate for the provincial or national elections for the parliament, but also as presidential candidates.

So, we are doing a lot of training for women candidates to be assertive, to go into subjects where normally people do not expect them to go.