Attacks on the Press 2005: Cameroon


President Paul Biya, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, retained a tight grip on power in his 23rd year in office. While Cameroon boasts diverse media, local independent journalists complain of sophisticated government intimidation, resulting in widespread self-censorship. Local journalists point to a complex web of financial pressures—including the withholding of advertising revenue by government agencies, and the Communications Ministry’s policy of providing yearly financial aid to some private media—that can be used to influence coverage. Authorities remained reluctant to repeal harsh criminal defamation laws.

Throughout 2005, government officials and other powerful figures used defamation suits to jail and intimidate critical journalists. For example, a prosecutor in the capital, Yaoundé, ordered Joseph Bessala Ahanda jailed in July pending a judicial investigation into defamation allegations against him. Ahanda, who edits the private weekly Le Front, was released without charge after three weeks. The accusations against him stemmed from a series of reports in Le Front alleging that the former director of the Cameroon Postal Service had embezzled state funds.

Journalists working in remote rural areas are particularly vulnerable to such suits. Eric Wirkwa Tayu, publisher of the tiny English-language newspaper Nso Voice, based in the western town of Kumbo, was freed in March after spending eight months in prison for allegedly defaming the town’s mayor. A lack of solidarity among journalists divided by language, region, and political sympathies can prevent such cases from being publicized.

Lawsuits also threatened the financial viability of news outlets. The CPA insurance company filed at least three defamation suits against news staff at the private bimonthly Le Jeune Observateur at the beginning of the year, all in connection with an article published in the paper a year earlier. One of the suits sent Publication Director Jules Koum Koum to prison for a month. The resulting cascade of court hearings created severe financial difficulties for the newspaper.

Army officials in northern Cameroon brought at least 12 court cases against the independent weekly L’Oeil du Sahel in 2005, in what local journalists said was a campaign of harassment against one of the only publications to cover Cameroon’s isolated northern region. The paper frequently reports abuses by security forces in the area, and local officials and soldiers often threaten its journalists, local sources told CPJ. According to local journalists, court hearings in the northern city of Maroua were kept secret from the newspaper’s staff, and in April publication director Guibaï Gatama and a reporter were sentenced in absentia to five months in jail and a hefty fine for allegedly defaming a local military police commander. The journalists were not arrested, but, by August, the staff was struggling to keep L’Oeil du Sahel afloat.

While private radio and television stations have proliferated since Cameroon liberalized broadcasting in the 1990s, local journalists say the government still tries to control content, in part through its licensing system. Rather than issue formal broadcast licenses, the government has long relied on a nebulous system of “provisional authorization,” which leaves private broadcasters in a legal limbo where they are liable to be closed down if they anger authorities. Radio’s popular appeal and potentially wide reach make it the most influential medium in Cameroon, as in many countries across Africa.

Some good news came in July when authorities unsealed the studios of Freedom FM, a stillborn independent radio station in the southern city of Douala conceived by the veteran journalist Pius Njawé, a 1991 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee. The Communications Ministry had ordered the station shut in May 2003—one day before Njawé’s planned first broadcast—claiming that he had not followed the proper procedures in applying for a broadcasting license. Njawé, who is well-known as the director of the popular newspaper Le Messager, maintained that he followed all the necessary steps, and many local journalists saw Freedom FM’s closure as a government attempt to censor an influential and critical voice.

Freedom FM’s triumph was bittersweet. While the studio was under government seal, neglect and roof leaks left much of the equipment damaged and the station unable to start broadcasting immediately.

After international attention was paid to the Freedom FM case, the Communications Ministry announced in August that a committee drawn from several government ministries, in concert with the official National Communications Council, would begin reviewing applications for official licenses. Communications Minister Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo told CPJ that licenses would be issued in a timely matter, although some local journalists expressed skepticism.

In an attempt to improve the reputation of the private press, which suffers from allegations of corruption and political partisanship, local journalists inaugurated a self-regulatory body in March. The Cameroonian Media Council, organized primarily by a local journalists’ union with some financial support from Canada, was given a mandate to improve ethical standards in journalism and to provide a forum for settling complaints against journalists without resorting to the courts. However, financial needs kept the council from becoming active, according to local sources. A national commission to distribute press cards to journalists, which the Communications Ministry set up in 2004 with the cooperation of local journalist associations, was also inactive.