New York, August 19, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is troubled by the growing legal harassment of the independent weekly L’Oeil du Sahel by Cameroon’s security forces. Army officers have brought at least twelve court cases against the newspaper since the beginning of the year, threatening its financial survival, director Guibaï Gatama said.
L’Oeil du Sahel is one of the few independent publications that cover Cameroon’s isolated north. Founded in 1998, it frequently reports abuses of power by security forces in the area. Its journalists are often threatened by local officials and soldiers, CPJ sources say.
On Wednesday, a court in Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North Province, sentenced Gatama in absentia to pay damages of 5 million CFA francs (U.S. $ 9,275) to the head of military security in the province and the same sum to a local high school superintendent. He was also fined 2 million CFA francs (U.S. $3,700). Both men were named in an article in October 2003 which alleged that the security chief had beaten up the superintendent for making his son do manual labor with the other students. According to Gatama, it was the military chief, René Dinama who brought the defamation case against the newspaper. Gatama stands by the story.
The newspaper is appealing an April verdict sentencing Gatama and a reporter to five months in jail and a 5 million CFA franc fine for an article criticizing a local military police brigade. The case was brought by a commander of a brigade of military police based in the northern town of Fotokol. The journalists’ appeal will be heard on August 30. (To read more about this case, see CPJ’s protest letter: http://www.cpj.org/protests/05ltrs/Cameroon10may05pl.html)
According to Gatama, both the April and August court hearings were conducted without the knowledge of L’Oeil du Sahel management, and no journalists from the newspaper were present at either.
“We are concerned that army officials are using the courts to intimidate the courageous staff of L’Oeil du Sahel,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ. “While we do not dispute the right of individual citizens to seek redress for alleged libel, this pattern of harassment suggests a targeted campaign.”