July 25, 2000
President Paul Biya
Palais de L'Unité
VIA FAX: 011.237.233.022
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is outraged at the prison sentences recently imposed on three journalists from the private biweekly publication Dikalo in retaliation for their coverage of alleged corruption and mismanagement at a local trade union.
On July 18, CPJ sources say, the Yaounde Court of First Instance convicted Dikalo publisher Celestin Biake Difana and two of his staff reporters, Daniel Atangana and Thierry Mbouza, of criminal defamation and sentenced them to prison terms. Difana appeared in court and received a suspended six-month prison sentence. The two reporters, who have been in hiding for the past few months, were condemned in absentia to six months in prison without parole.
The charges were brought by Pierre Simé, head of the National Union of Professional Truckers, in response to an article about the union that appeared in a November, 1998, issue of Dikalo. Several concurring sources told CPJ that the information contained in the article was sent to Dikalo in the form of a petition signed by 81 union members who attacked what they described as rampant corruption and embezzlement among union officials. The statement called the union "a phantom structure led by Pierre Simé that helps expatriate truckers plunder Cameroon."
The Yaounde Court of First Instance found the three journalists guilty of criminal defamation for disseminating "baseless accusations" that have allegedly tarnished Mr. Simé's reputation. No charges were filed against the 81 signatories of the petition.
With this ruling, seven journalists in Cameroon have now been sentenced to prison for criminal defamation in the past 12 months. Most recently, on April 3, a criminal court in the western Cameroonian town of Bafoussam convicted Michel Eclador Pekoua, publisher of the private weekly Ouest Echos, on one count of defamation and sentenced him to six months in prison without parole. The verdict came six months after a state-owned oil company, Société Nationale des Hydrocarbures (SNH), accused Pekoua of defaming two company officials in an editorial that ran in an August, 1999, edition of Ouest Echos.
Quoting a leaked SNH internal document, Pekoua alleged that SNH executive director Adolphe Moduki had embezzled large sums out of the company's budget, and had spent much of the stolen money on gifts for his lover, Tenda Ekoka, an executive secretary at SNH. Although the facts in Pekoua's article were never disputed, the journalist remains in prison in Bafoussam as of today.
CPJ believes that civil libel statutes provide adequate recourse for people who feel they have been defamed, and that no journalists should ever go to jail for their work. We respectfully remind Your Excellency that "detention as punishment for the expression of an opinion is one of the most reprehensible means to enjoin silence, and as such constitutes a serious violation of human rights," according to a July 14, 1992, declaration by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Moreover, the Preamble to the amended 1996 Constitution affirms Cameroon's commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of which stipulates that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
CPJ is gravely concerned that press freedom in Cameroon remains at the mercy of a legal system that has repeatedly shown its hostility to independent journalism. We urge Your Excellency to take all legal measures to ensure that the charges against Celestin Biake Difana, Daniel Atangana, and Thierry Mbouza are dismissed, that Michel Eclador Pekoua is immediately and unconditionally released from prison, and that all journalists in Cameroon may carry out their professional duties without judicial harassment.
Ann K. Cooper