Attacks on the Press 2000: Cameroon

NOVEMBER 4 MARKED PRESIDENT PAUL BIYA’S 18TH YEAR as leader of a regime that has persistently been accused of human rights violations. Cameroonian law enforcement officials make “widespread and systematic” use of torture, according to a March report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

The pompous anniversary celebrations failed to impress Cameroonian journalists, who were undergoing a serious identity crisis aggravated by shrinking audiences and popular cynicism about local journalistic ethics. Indeed, many local observers think the cynicism justified. Some local reporters have been known to extort cash from state officials and wealthy businessmen in exchange for not running fabricated scandal stories, a practice known as “gombo journalism.”

In recent years, a number of print and broadcast outlets have been taking sides in Cameroon’s sharply polarized ethnic politics, often to the point of indulging in hate speech. This trend is most starkly apparent in the Anglophone southwestern provinces of Cameroon, the scene of frequent and often violent confrontation between government forces and a local secessionist movement.

Reporters covering this region come under intense government scrutiny. On February 23, police arrested and interrogated three journalists from the provincial station Radio Buea about a broadcast that criticized the government’s treatment of English-speaking Cameroonians, many of whom feel marginalized by the French-speaking majority that has controlled the central government since independence in 1960. All three journalists were released a few hours later.

One consequence of popular mistrust of the press has been a flurry of defamation lawsuits against reporters or their news organizations. In most cases, local courts have sided with the plaintiffs after hasty trials. By mid-July, seven journalists had been found guilty of criminal defamation. They were sentenced to prison terms, often suspended, and ordered to pay heavy fines.

The authorities still require news outlets to pay huge licensing fees. They also reserve the right to seize or ban newspapers under the revised Press Code of April, 1996, which also limits media access to government-held information.

In early March, faced with mounting criticism of its broadcasting monopoly, the government liberalized the airwaves under Decree 2000/158. But licensing requirements and other private broadcasting regulations remained murky. And the bureaucratic apathy prevailing at the Information Ministry and the National Communication Council (CNC) delayed the approval of some 30 applications for broadcast licenses, many of which were first filed in 1990.

Samba Churchill, The Post

Churchill, a correspondent for the English-language daily The Post, had his home in the provincial town of Kumba ransacked by unknown persons who stole private correspondence, audiotapes, and notebooks. Churchill claimed the raid was conducted by plainclothes police officers.

Security forces in Kumba have been keeping an eye on Churchill since November 1, 1999, when he published a story in The Post alleging wisdespread corruption in local government. The article singled out the commissioner of police and other local officials.

Chris Oben, Radio Buea
Jean-Mathias Kouemeko, Radio Buea
Theresia Forbin, Radio Buea

Police raided the independent station Radio Buea and arrested station manager Oben, producer Kouemeko, and technician Forbin. The police were concerned about a Radio Buea program that criticized the government’s treatment of Anglophone Cameroonians.

Entitled “Refugees in France and Britain,” the program featured interviews with separatist Cameroonians living in Europe who accused President Paul Biya’s government of marginalizing English-speakers and violating their constitutional rights. The three journalists were interrogated and held for several hours, then released pending further investigation.

Located in Buea, a small rural town in Anglophone southwestern Cameroon, Radio Buea is one of 10 accredited provincial broadcasters in Cameroon. CPJ published an alert about the raid on March 10.

Severin Tchonkeu, La Nouvelle Expression
Edmond Kamguia, La Nouvelle Expression
Alain Bengono, La Nouvelle Expression

Bengono, a reporter for the private Yaounde weekly La Nouvelle Expression, the newspaper’s publisher, Tchonkeu, and its editor, Kamguia, were all arrested on charges of publishing false information in a March 31 article alleging that an army post had been robbed in the capital, Yaoundé.

Bengono’s article used the alleged robbery to illustrate Cameroon’s lax security situation, noting that it occurred on the day that President Paul Biya presided over festivities marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the country’s armed forces.

According to Cameroonian law, only the writer of an article and his or her publisher may be detained for publishing false information. As a result, editor Kamguia was released on April 13. The two other journalists were released the next day pending court action against them.

The arrests followed a complaint filed on April 4 by Gen. Mambou Deffo, a senior army official. General Deffo claimed the article had damaged military morale and threatened the newspaper’s staff with reprisals. La Nouvelle Expression then released an apology, explaining that the story had been intended as an April Fool’s Day joke.

Daniel Atangana, Dikalo
Thierry Mbouza, Dikalo
Celestin Biake Difana, Dikalo

A court in the capital, Yaoundé, convicted Difana, publisher of the private biweekly Dikalo, and two of his staff reporters, Atangana and Mbouza, of criminal defamation.

The charges stemmed from a November 1998 article about alleged embezzlement and mismanagement at the National Union of Professional Truckers. Sources told CPJ that the information included in the article had been sent to Dikalo in the form of a petition signed by 81 union members. The petition described the union as “a phantom structure which helps expatriate truckers plunder Cameroon.”

The suit was filed by union leader Pierre Simé. The Yaoundé Court of First Instance found all three journalists guilty of criminal defamation for disseminating “baseless accusations.”

Difana appeared in court on July 18 and was handed a six-month prison sentence, suspended for three years. Atangana and Mbouza, who both went into hiding during the trial, were sentenced in absentia to six months’ imprisonment without parole.

CPJ protested the prison sentences in a July 25 letter to President Paul Biya.