Government lifts ban on private radio station

New York, July 14, 2005—Government officials unsealed the studios of Freedom FM on Tuesday, more than two years after the Communications Ministry shuttered the private radio station just as it was about to broadcast for the first time. Based in the southwestern port city of Douala, the station was founded by Pius Njawé, a veteran independent journalist and 1991 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.

Communications Minister Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo agreed to re-open the station after extensive negotiations between representatives of the government and the Free Media Group, the radio station’s parent company.

Njawé told CPJ that the government had sealed off the station while employees were still finishing construction, and, as a result, water damage and neglect rendered much of the station’s equipment unusable. In addition, Free Media Group was not able to retain the reporters it trained in 2003 to work for the station. Njawé, who also runs the popular private newspaper Le Messager, said that the project represented an investment of 60 million CFA francs (about US $110,500), some of which might be unrecoverable.

The Communications Ministry, while under former minister Jacques Fame Ndongo, ordered Freedom FM closed in May 2003, one day before it was to begin operating. The ministry said Freedom FM had not followed the proper procedures in applying for a broadcasting license; Njawé maintained that the station followed all necessary procedures.

Local journalists accused the government of shuttering Freedom FM out of fear that the station would provide a platform for critical reporting on the government in the lead-up to presidential elections, which were held in October 2004.

As part of an agreement signed in June, the station and the government said they would drop pending litigation over the closing. That includes a 2003 lawsuit brought by the Communications Ministry against Njawé for the “illegal creation of an audio-visual communications enterprise,” and a complaint lodged by Njawé and the Open Society Institute at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The Communications Ministry also promised to provide Freedom FM with “provisional authorization” to operate. Private radio stations in Cameroon typically function with only provisional authorization because the government doesn’t issue them formal licenses. Local journalists said the Communications Ministry’s criteria for granting authorization are unclear, leaving radio stations vulnerable to forced closing if they anger authorities.

“We welcome the lifting of the ban on Freedom FM, and hope that the station will soon be able to begin broadcasting,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “But the government should publicly recognize that Freedom FM was improperly shut down in the first place, and it should accept financial responsibility for the damages resulting from the closure.”