Attacks on the Press 2001: Cameroon

Compared to previous years, the government of President Paul Biya seemed less keen to abuse the local press in 2001. In February, officials scrapped the value-added tax on imported media equipment and multimedia goods and services. Two months later, in June, the state television and radio network RTC allowed the BBC World Service to broadcast news on the FM band in the capital, Yaoundé. In September, the agreement was extended to include Cameroon’s second city, Douala, and the town of Bamenda in the English-speaking southwestern province.

Cameroon’s “Anglophone problem” dominated political life last year. The former German, then British, then French colony started independent life as a federation of autonomous provinces. In May 1972, Cameroon became a “united republic.” In 1982, President Biya removed the word “united” from the country’s official name. Since then, the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) has been agitating for the English-speaking southwestern provinces to secede. The SCNC’s cause is backed by a number of local media outlets, notably Radio Buea and Postwatch Magazine.

The government continued to suppress all political opposition last year. In March, officials harassed newspapers that ran stories about the February disappearance of nine youths during an opposition rally in a Yaoundé suburb. At year’s end, the scandal threatened to ruin President Biya’s efforts to regain the confidence of the people, who have a poor opinion of their leader almost two decades since he rose to power, according to opinion polls.

The Biya regime has been under particular pressure to show respect for basic rights since the World Bank gave the go-ahead for the 600-mile Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline project, expected to flush billions of dollars into Cameroon. As a result, public relations ranked high among government priorities last year.

In June, authorities paid journalist lbert Mukong US$137,000 in damages for detaining him without warrant in 1988 and again in 1990, and for banning his book, Prisoner Without a Crime. Mukong, who took his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1994, benefited from the legal expertise of ARTICLE 19, the London-based anti-censorship group.

As the Anglophone problem persisted into the second half of the year, authorities detained and interrogated half a dozen reporters who had reported on alleged defense secrets or the state’s uneven response to the SCNC’s struggle. In January, as the Franco-African Summit was opening in Yaoundé, police officers raided the Bamenda-based Postwatch Magazine, impounded several dozen copies of the magazine, and interrogated publisher Ntemfac Aloysius Nchwete Ofege for a piece deemed irreverent toward French policies in Africa.

January 17

Ntemfac Aloysius Nchwete Ofege, Postwatch

Just as the Franco-African Summit was opening in the capital, Yaoundé, police officers in the southern town of Bamenda raided the newsroom of the English-language publication Postwatch Magazine and impounded at least 100 copies of the paper.

Waving a search warrant, the officers told Postwatch Magazine staff that they had come to seize “incriminating” evidence against Ofege, the paper’s publisher, who was taken in custody.

The raid apparently came in reprisal for an article attacking France’s Africa policy.

Ofege was interrogated for more than two hours and then charged with sedition. Police released him but warned that he would be called in for further questioning.

Ofege and his Postwatch Magazine actively support the Southern Cameroon National Council, which is agitating for greater autonomy and independence for Cameroon’s English-speaking provinces.

July 30

Ahman Mana, Mutations

About 20 armed police officers cordoned off the editorial headquarters of the independent thrice-weekly Mutations, based in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. The officers said they were looking for Ahman Mana, the paper’s publisher, who they claimed had published copies of presidential decrees that contained “military secrets.”

The decrees, signed on July 26 by longtime president Paul Biya, related to the government’s planned modernization and rejuvenation of military forces at a time when military morale was said to be very low.

The government daily, Cameroon Tribune, also published the decrees but suffered no consequences.

Mana was not in his office at the time of the police raid, which lasted more than five hours and ended only after the intervention of Celestin Lingo, head of Cameroon’s Union of Journalists.

When Mana responded to a police summons the next day, officials took him into custody and held him incommunicado until August 3. He was released without charge.

During his time in detention, officials pressured Mana to identify the source who gave him the decrees. Mana later told reporters that he had refused to divulge his sources, citing provisions in Cameroon’s press law that guarantee source confidentiality.

August 20

Remy Ngono, Radio Television Siantou

Ngono, head of the popular private broadcaster Radio Television Siantou (RTS), was arrested by police officers on his way home from a party in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. The journalist, who also hosts the popular satirical talk show “Coup Franc” on RTS, was taken to Yaoundé’s central police station, where officers beat him repeatedly before releasing him early the next day.

Local journalists say Ngono was attacked because he frequently criticized the Cameroonian police, accusing them of corruption and links to organized crime. No formal charges were filed against the journalist.

August 22

Georges Baongla, Le Dementi

Baongla, a journalist with the independent weekly Le Dementi in the capital, Yaoundé, was arrested by police for “publishing false news” after he reported that Minister of the Economy and Finances Michel Meva’a M’Eboutou was implicated in an embezzlement scheme.

Police demanded that the journalist reveal his sources, despite the country’s press law, which protects journalists from such coercion.

Following protests by local and regional human rights groups, authorities switched the charges against Baongla to “breach of trust.” They then claimed the journalist was being detained for failing to repay US$695 that a nephew of Minister M’Eboutou had allegedly loaned him a few months before.

Baongla denied ever receiving the loan. He was released on August 25.

October 1

Jean Marc Soboth, La Nouvelle Expression

Police summoned Soboth, editor of the private thrice-weekly paper La Nouvelle Expression, and pressured him to name the sources for a September 24 article.

Soboth’s piece chastised government efforts to curtail freedom of movement in Cameroon’s English-speaking provinces ahead of the 40th anniversary of the country’s reunification, a political achievement still challenged by militant groups in those provinces.

Soboth reportedly cited excerpts from confidential correspondence between the office of Deputy Defense Minister Rémy Ze Meka and police forces in the English-speaking provinces instructing officers to use force to break up anti-government demonstrations, and to monitor individuals perceived to be “subversive agitators.”

Authorities accused Soboth and La Nouvelle Expression of revealing a “defense secret” by publishing the correspondence and have insisted that the editor reveal his sources or face legal action. But Soboth declined to do so, arguing that 1990 media legislation allows journalists to protect their sources.

Soboth was released that same day without charge.

December 8

Djenga Mondo, Magic FM

Magic FM reporter Mondo was beaten by members of President Paul Biya’s security service after he approached the head of state for an impromptu interview at a meeting of Central African heads of state in Cameroon’s capital, Youndé.

The security agents threatened to arrest Mondo, but he was released after the intervention of Edgar Alain Mebe Ngo’o, a top presidential aide.