Attacks on the Press 2003: Cameroon

In April, two days after Cameroon’s only private daily, the French-language Mutations, was suspended and three of its journalists were detained, Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo assured journalists that, “Cameroon’s press freedom is real.” The Central African country’s beleaguered press corps might disagree. Amid widespread domestic and international criticism of Cameroon’s dismal human rights record–and ahead of 2004 presidential elections–the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) cracked down on the private press. Authorities censored critical media outlets and harassed local journalists, who complain of frequent threats and intimidation.

Speculation in the press about the country’s political future provoked government anger, which in turn caused self-censorship, according to local journalists. Elections are expected in October 2004, although President Paul Biya has hinted he may reschedule them earlier in the year. Biya, who has been in power for 21 years, has not officially announced his candidacy.

In April, a state-owned printing press refused to print the April 14 edition of Mutations. Police later seized the computer disk containing the edition and detained three of the publication’s journalists for questioning. The actions stemmed from a report in that issue about the president’s succession speculating on the possible political and ethnic turmoil that could occur if Biya retires.

Political debates aired on television and radio–especially ones featuring members of the opposition–provoked the government’s ire. In March, Communications Minister Ndongo ordered the private, Yaoundé-based radio station Magic FM to close after speakers criticized Biya’s frequent trips abroad, his appointment of officials to multiple posts, and government corruption. The station was allowed to reopen 10 days later, after its directors wrote a letter of apology to the Communications Ministry.

In February, the government suspended two local television networks, RTA and Canal 2, for alleged licensing violations. However, Cameroonian journalists told CPJ they believe that was a pretext, and that the suspensions were related to the political nature of local shows, including debates featuring opposition leaders who criticized Biya’s administration.

Throughout 2003, authorities used Cameroon’s selective licensing system to close media outlets that threatened the status quo. While the Communications Ministry gave broadcasting licenses to three new private radio stations and four private television channels in September, local journalists say that the ministry’s criteria for granting licenses remain opaque, and that many news directors wait months before being allowed to operate. Local journalists say the ministry regularly delays granting licenses to radio stations that they fear will criticize the government.

In May, officials closed and sealed the offices of the new private radio station Freedom FM, which is based in the southwestern port city of Douala. The closure came the day before the station was to begin broadcasting, according to Director Pius Njawé, who also runs the popular, private triweekly Le Messager. Njawé is known for his political commentary, which often targets the ruling party. The Communications Ministry said Freedom FM did not follow the proper procedures in applying for a broadcasting license and therefore would not approve the station’s application. However, Njawé maintains that the station followed all necessary procedures.

In November, the Communications Ministry ordered the private, Douala-based radio station Veritas to stop broadcasting, also for allegedly failing to meet licensing requirements. The station, which had been broadcasting religious programming for two weeks, was founded by Catholic Cardinal Christian Tumi. Local journalists told CPJ that the station’s closure was linked to the cardinal’s frequent criticism of the Biya administration, and that the ruling CPDM fears that the cardinal might run as an opposition candidate in the 2004 presidential election. On December 12, the ministry issued a new license to the station allowing Veritas to provide religious programming for “the social and cultural education of the Catholic community of Douala.”

Cameroonian journalists continue to suffer under a harsh press law, which allows authorities to imprison journalists for their work. In August, Rémy Ngono, a former journalist for the private, Yaoundé-based Radio Télévision Siantou (RTS), was imprisoned on criminal defamation charges filed by a businessman he had accused of embezzlement. Local journalists called for the decriminalization of press offenses, although many also criticized Ngono for a lack of professionalism. Ngono hosted “Kondré Chaud,” a satirical program on RTS, until fall 2002, when he was fired in response to numerous listener complaints the station had received accusing him of defamation and a lack of professionalism, according to local sources.

Cameroon, which was divided between Britain and France during colonization, gained independence in 1961 as a federation of autonomous Anglophone and Francophone provinces. In May 1972, the country became a “united republic.” In recent years, the separatist Southern Cameroon National Council has been pushing for the English-speaking southwestern provinces to secede.

Journalists who delve into the shaky coexistence of French and English speakers in Cameroon face government reprisals. In November, police and customs officials seized the entire print run of the English-language monthly Insight Magazine, which included a cover piece criticizing the country’s reunification. The article, partly based on interviews with members of the minority Anglophone population, accused the government of failing to deliver on promises to integrate the English-speaking community politically and economically.