Attacks on the Press 1999: Cameroon

Freedom of expression remains elusive in Cameroon. An October 1999 United Nations report on the country’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights deplored the wide variety of abuses suffered by local journalists as well as arbitrary state controls over press, radio, and television.

Broadcast media remained the monopoly of President Paul Biya’s ruling People’s Movement for Democracy (MPDC). In an April survey conducted by a U.S. polling firm, most Cameroonians said they were fed up with the programming on Cameroon Radio-Télévison, the state broadcaster. But there seemed little hope of improvement in the near future.

The government has yet to implement the 1990 media law’s provisions for the liberalization of electronic media. More than 50 requests for private radio stations, some of them a decade old, still await official approval. However, taking advantage of a legal loophole that allows “community” broadcasters to operate without obtaining a “private” license, a Canadian-funded project was able to set up five radio stations in rural areas. And in an experiment endorsed by top state officials, two religious radio stations and one low-watt broadcaster serving a university campus were launched early this year near the capital, Yaoundé.

As in the past, state-owned news-papers dominated the print-media scene in 1999. Most independent journalists have been censoring themselves since the 1997 elections, when officials cracked down on private media. This past October, for example, independent journalists refrained from covering the judicially flawed trial of 65 alleged minority secessionists.

Government agencies closely monitor local media. Article 48 of the 1990 media law states that only the government may legally draft a code of ethics for journalists. Under Article 15 of the same law, government reserves the right to seize and ban newspapers that “offend the honor and dignity” of state officials. Early this year, for example, police seized copies of the weekly satirical newspaper Mamy-Wata after it printed an unflattering caricature of President Biya.

President Biya, in power since November 1982, is infamous for trampling on the rights of journalists. There is substantial evidence that journalists who are picked up and held without charge often remain in detention far longer than the 72-hour maximum prescribed by the country’s penal code. And in late May, political commentator Aimé Mathurin Moussy, whose independent daily La Plume du Jour has been banned since 1997, was forced into exile for denouncing the Biya regime’s systematic assaults on press freedom.

Cameroon’s notoriously corrupt judicial system is also quick to imprison journalists who displease the government. In mid-July, for example, a Yaoundé court sentenced Anselme Mballa, editor of the private weekly Le Serment, to six months behind bars. At year’s end the reasons for Mballa’s sentence remained obscure, partly because Cameroonian journalists must remain silent even about violations of their own professional rights.

January 4

Police in Douala seized as many as 2,500 copies of the weekly satirical newspaper Mamy-Wata (out of a weekly circulation of 4,000). According to Sévérin Tchounkeu, director of La Nouvelle Expression, the media company that owns Mamy-Wata, this action came in response to a cartoon in a December edition of the newspaper that depicted the president, Paul Biya, arguing with his wife. However, the police gave no official reason for their action.

May 25
Aimé Mathurin Moussy, La Plume du Jour THREATENED

Moussy, editor in chief of the independent daily La Plume du Jour, was threatened by Cameroonian authorities after he gave an interview in Paris to the French radio station Fréquence Paris Plurielle. During the May 23 interview, Moussy spoke about the press freedom situation in Cameroon and mentioned that La Plume du Jour had been suspended since September 1997. Police officers visited his Douala residence soon afterward and interrogated members of his family. Fearing arrest upon his return to Cameroon, Moussy applied for political asylum in France.

June 8
Souley Onohiolo, La Nouvelle Expression IMPRISONED

Onohiolo, a contributor to the independent triweekly La Nouvelle Expression, was charged with libel and sentenced in absentia to four months in prison for a February 17 article about a ceremony during which an exorcist allegedly accused Adamou Bako, the affluent director of a local bus company, of enriching himself by means of witchcraft. Bako filed a lawsuit in the central Cameroonian town of Bafia against Onohiolo and La Nouvelle Expression. The journalist was indicted and imprisoned; La Nouvelle Expression was sentenced to pay Bako damages of 83 million CFA francs (US$263,000).

July 16
Anselme Mballa, Le Serment IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

A court in Yaoundé sentenced Mballa, editor of the private weekly newspaper Le Serment, to a six-month prison term for defamation. While the reasons for the charge remained unclear, some local sources linked it to an article that Mballa published in April 1999, criticizing the manner in which the secretary of state for posts and telecommunications treated traditional chiefs. The journalist remained in prison at the end of the year.

July 22
Christophe Bobiokono, Mutations IMPRISONED

Several armed police officers arrested Bobiokono, a journalist for the independent biweekly Mutations, at the magazine’s Yaoundé headquarters.

The officers did not have a search warrant, nor did they give any reason for Bobiokono’s detention. It seems probable, however, that he was arrested in connection with an article that he wrote for the July 19 issue of Mutations. In the article, Bobiokono pointed out that the Finance Ministry had awarded several investment deals and public contracts to the finance minister’s son. He expressed skepticism about the legality of these transactions.

Bobiokono spent two nights in detention at the Yaoundé central police station. On July 24, prison officials received a letter from the office of President Paul Biya ordering his immediate and unconditional release.