Attacks on the Press 2002: Cameroon

On October 10, the International Court of Justice recognized Cameroon’s rights to Bakassi, a Gulf of Guinea peninsula whose sizable offshore oil deposits Nigeria has long claimed. Nevertheless, Nigeria continued to assert its prerogative, reviving fears of an armed conflict along the 1,000 mile (1,600 kilometer) border between the two countries.

Covering the court ruling steered the Cameroonian media’s attention from other pressing issues, such as the protracted secessionist campaign by the southwestern English- speaking provinces and the government’s poor human rights record. Meanwhile, the state enlisted the press to buttress the government’s case against Nigeria while continuing to harass and detain journalists.

On January 9, police imprisoned Georges Baongla, publisher of the private weekly Le Démenti, and seized the paper’s computers on claims that Baongla had defrauded a Finance Ministry official of US$23,000. Le Démenti staff, however, say their boss was persecuted for articles the paper had published denouncing graft at the ministry. At year’s end, Baongla had been released.

In March, authorities jailed Peter William Mandio, publisher of the private weekly Le Front Indépendant, for three days after his paper ran a story about several alleged illicit affairs between staff members at the Office of the President. Publisher Jacques Blaise Mvié, of the weekly La Nouvelle Presse, went into hiding to avoid similar reprisals after his paper reported the same allegations.

President Paul Biya’s administration struggled to present itself as a democratic regime, even amid press reports that citizens had filed 127 complaints asking the Supreme Court to cancel the results of the June legislative and municipal elections, in which the ruling Cameroon’s People Democratic Party (CPDM) increased its hold on Parliament. Under intense pressure, the court voided results for 17 out of 154 seats, ruling that the balloting was deeply flawed. The September by-elections were less controversial, landing the CPDM all but one of the contested seats and shrinking the opposition’s share to 21 seats, down from 43.

Following the by-elections, the media began running vitriolic commentaries about Biya’s foreign trips, including a 54-day vacation abroad, under headlines such as “President Gone AWOL” and “Biya Kidnaps Self, Or Has He Fled?” In response, Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo lambasted the media’s “slippery ethics,” which he said amounted to “invasion of privacy likely to disturb public order.” A few weeks later, when Biya returned to celebrate his 20th anniversary as president, La Nouvelle Expression ran an article titled “20 Years of Delusions,” while Le Renouveau lamented that Cameroonians had just spent “20 years in confusion.”

March 1

Peter William Mandio, Le Front Indépendant
Jacques Blaise Mvié, La Nouvelle Presse

Mandio, publisher of the Yaoundé-based private weekly Le Front Indépendant, was detained by police and questioned for several hours about an Indépendant article describing an extramarital affair between two unnamed officials at the Office of the President. Mandio was released on the evening of March 4 with orders to “remain accessible to the judiciary.”

Meanwhile, Blaise Mvié, the publisher of the popular tabloid La Nouvelle Presse, went into hiding after he learned that police wanted to question him about a story in his publication that revealed the names of the officials allegedly having the affair and reported that they had occasional trysts inside presidential quarters. Mvié’s colleagues at La Nouvelle Presse also claimed that their paper’s offices were under police surveillance.