New York, February 22, 2008—Cameroon’s government summarily closed on Thursday a leading private television station on alleged regulatory violations, according to local journalists and news reports. The station in Douala was distinguished for its leading coverage of a national debate over a bid by President Paul Biya to scrap a constitutional clause that limits presidential terms.
Two police commanders backed by a squad of riot police forced Equinoxe Télévision off the air at 3 p.m. local time and sealed its studios, the station’s editor in chief, Albert Yondjeu, told CPJ. Police gave the station a copy of an order from Communications Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam that had been read exclusively on state radio and television. The order stated that the station was operating illegally because it had not paid a 100 million CFA francs (US$227,000) broadcast licensing fee, according to Equinoxe Director General Séverin Tchounkeu.
Only three private television stations, Canal2 International, Spectrum TV, and TV+ have operated with official licenses in Cameroon since last year, but the government has allowed the rest of the handful of stations, unable to afford the hefty licensing fees, to operate under what Jean-Marc Soboth, National Secretary of the Cameroon Journalists’ Trade Union, called a de facto “regime of administrative tolerance.”
“We are alarmed by the closure of Equinoxe TV, which is clearly intended to send a message to cow the press into self-censorship over political coverage,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the authorities to allow the station back on the air immediately.”
In a telephone interview with CPJ today, Minister Essam said the government would also close other stations in default.
Local journalists say they believe the move was linked to Equinoxe’s pointed coverage of the heated debate splitting supporters and opponents of Biya, who has been in power since 1982. Last Saturday, the station exclusively aired a live feed of police dispersing a protest with live rounds, said Henry Fotso, President of Cameroon’s National Broadcasting Trade Union. Equinoxe was also leading the way in debate programs and interviews of both opposition leaders and government officials, local journalists said.
Cameroon’s 1990 press law liberalized the country’s airwaves, but in 2000, former Prime Minister Peter Mafany Moussonge unilaterally signed a decree imposing the regulatory rules of the broadcasting sector, including hefty licensing fees. It was not until June 2007 that the first licenses for three television stations and one radio station were awarded, according to news reports.