Cameroon broadcaster’s equipment held by police

New York, July 8, 2008–Cameroonian authorities have lifted a ban on three private broadcasters summarily closed in connection with their critical coverage in February, but police are withholding equipment seized from one station, according to local journalists and news reports.

Equinoxe Télévision, sister radio station Radio Equinoxe, and Magic FM were authorized to return to air on July 4 by Communications Minister Jean Pierre Biyiti bi Essam. However, police continued to hold the broadcasting equipment of Magic FM, a popular station and partner of international U.S. broadcaster Voice of America in the capital, Yaoundé, Editor-in-Chief Roger Kiyeck told CPJ.

Security forces forced Magic FM off the air during a February 28 raid in which they seized broadcasting equipment, after callers criticized President Paul Biya during a news program. When CPJ contacted Essam today about the equipment, Essam stated, “You are better informed than I am,” without commenting further.

All three stations were distinguished for their pointed political coverage of a national debate on constitutional reform marred by violence, according to local journalists.

“We are relieved that Equinoxe Télévision, Radio Equinoxe, and Magic FM have finally been allowed to return to air,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “We call on the government to abandon such crude tactics of censorship like these arbitrary closures of media outlets, and ask that authorities to ensure that all of Magic FM’s equipment is returned immediately.”

The Equinoxe stations were allowed to resume broadcasting based on their partial payments of Cameroon’s hefty 100 million CFA francs (US$227,000) broadcast licensing fees, according to a decree issued by the ministry. Essam had invoked the nonpayment of such fees to summarily shut down the stations in February. Only four broadcasters operated with a license in Cameroon at the time of the closures, while the vast majority of stations broadcasted in what is the press refers to as “administrative tolerance.”

Police unsealed the Equinoxe studios in the commercial port town of Douala on Monday afternoon, according to local news reports. Radio Equinoxe returned to the air for two hours, but equipment repairs after nearly four months of disuse will likely keep the station off the air for another week, Editor-in-Chief Albert Yondjeu told CPJ.

Opposition Member of Parliament Jean-Jacques Ekindi accused the minister on July 4 of violating Cameroon’s 1990 press law. “You are guilty of abuse of power,” Ekindi was quoted in the leading daily Le Messager as saying.