President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 22 years, won another seven-year term in October elections marked by allegations of fraud. Because opposition groups remained weak and fragmented, Biya’s ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement felt little need to campaign. The polling date was not set until mid-September, and Biya waited another five days to officially announce his candidacy.
In January, amid widespread censorship of critical media outlets in the run-up to the poll, the state-run Cameroon Tribune ran an article titled “Cameroon: Beacon of Press Freedom.” While Cameroon boasts a large and diverse private press, the Tribune‘s article failed to mention that self-censorship is common, and that local journalists complain of frequent threats, violent attacks, and harassment. During a February talk in Dschang, in western Cameroon, veteran Cameroonian journalist and former CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Pius Njawé said that media “repression has become very sophisticated.”
Freedom FM, a stillborn private radio station in the southwestern city of Douala, continued a legal battle to recover its equipment and offices, which remained shuttered at year’s end. The Communications Ministry ordered the station closed in May 2003, one day before it was to begin operating. Freedom FM was launched by Pius Njawé, who also runs the popular private newspaper Le Messager (The Messenger) and is known for his incisive political commentary and activism. The Communications Ministry said Freedom FM did not follow the proper procedures in applying for a broadcasting license; Njawé maintains that the station followed all necessary procedures.
On January 1, authorities ordered at least 10 rural radio stations closed. According to the Communications Ministry, they were operating without “official permission,” but local sources said the government was cracking down on private broadcasters in the run-up to elections. Because of low literacy rates and the limited distribution of private newspapers, radio is a powerful medium for conveying information in rural areas.
Officials told the stations’ directors that the broadcasting sector was “too sensitive not to be controlled,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). Local journalists say the Communications Ministry’s criteria for granting broadcasting licenses are opaque. Most private radio and television stations operate without licenses, making them vulnerable to closure if they air critical reports; in 2003, authorities repeatedly used licensing regulations to shutter private broadcasters that aired reports unfavorable to the government.
During the election campaign, Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) served as a mouthpiece for Biya, according to local journalists and even an October report by the government-controlled National Communications Council (CNC). An October press release from the opposition Movement for Democracy and Interdependence (MDI), reported that CRTV stopped covering the MDI candidate, Djeukam Tchameni, because his words “might trouble public order.” The MDI later decided to boycott the elections and accused the government of vote rigging.
During the elections, some journalists in rural areas said that they were blocked from approaching polling stations, even when they had obtained prior authorization from local authorities. After the elections, gendarmes barred journalists from attending a press conference organized by the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF). According to AFP, the SDF had planned to declare that its candidate, John Fru Ndi, had won more votes than Biya, based on its own polling of voters.
Authorities faulted foreign media for their coverage, which tended to criticize the electoral process. When Radio France Internationale (RFI) broadcast an interview with Catholic Cardinal Christian Tumi, a well-known government critic, in which he called the elections a “masquerade,” Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo released a detailed press release assailing RFI for what he called a “flagrant violation of the universal laws of journalistic ethics.” Ndongo also threatened to bar RFI broadcasts in Cameroon, according to local journalists. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the broadcaster.
Political supporters occasionally targeted local journalists during the run-up to the elections. In February, unidentified assailants brutally beat Edmond Kamguia Koumchou, editor-in-chief of the private Douala-based newspaper Nouvelle Expression (New Expression). According to the National Union of Cameroonian Journalists, to which Koumchou belongs, the attack came in reprisal for articles criticizing statements by university faculty who supported Biya’s re-election.
Bakassi, an oil-rich peninsula claimed by both Cameroon and Nigeria, was another sensitive issue for the press. In July, two BBC journalists were detained for five days when they traveled to the peninsula to report on its planned handover to Cameroon, in accordance with a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Even though Farouk Chothia, a London-based producer and South African national, and Ange Ngu Thomas, a Cameroonian reporter based in Douala, had obtained signed authorization from Cameroonian authorities to travel to Bakassi, Cameroonian soldiers arrested them and accused them of being spies. They were released without charge, although Thomas told CPJ he continued to receive anonymous threats.
Criminal penalties for such offenses as defamation remain on the books and are sometimes used. In July, Eric Wirkwa Tayu, publisher of the tiny private newspaper Nso Voice, was sentenced to five months in prison and given a hefty fine for allegedly defaming the mayor of Kumbo, a town in western Cameroon where the paper is based. The case also illustrated the fact that journalists based in remote, rural areas can face persecution from powerful local figures. Tayu remained imprisoned at year’s end.
Cameroonian journalists must also contend with a lack of training and financial resources. Local sources told CPJ that corruption and political divisions threaten media credibility. In May, a commission headed by Alain Blaise Batongué, a veteran journalist and editor of the independent daily Mutations, began distributing national press cards to journalists. The commission includes journalists from the private press and government employees, but the Communications Ministry approves all members.
While some journalists worried that the commission, which was created by the Communications Ministry with the cooperation of local journalists associations, would become another way for authorities to control the private press, many expressed hopes that the press cards would help journalists gain access to official information and improve the reputation of the private press. Local reporters also hoped that the press cards would encourage media owners to give formal contracts and benefits to their employees.