January 16, 2009
H.E. Paul Biya
President of the Republic of Cameroon
c/o The Embassy of the Republic of Cameroon to the United States
2349 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Dear President Biya,
We are writing to express our alarm that four newspaper editors have been jailed in Cameroon for their work since September–making your country the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa, according to our research. We ask you to eliminate criminal defamation laws for press offenses. Libel should be settled in civil court.
On January 7, a judge in Douala sentenced editor Lewis Medjo of the weekly La Détente Libre to three years in prison and a fine of 2 million CFA francs (US$4,200) on charges of publishing false news, according to local journalists and news reports. The charges are linked to an August 2008 column about a presidential decree that extended the terms of some senior judges approaching retiring age, according to the editor-in-chief of La Détente Libre, Michée Medjo Gatheu.
Defense lawyers filed an appeal, but Medjo remains in Douala’s New Bell prison, where he says he has suffered two heart attacks and respiratory problems since he was jailed on September 26, Gatheu told CPJ. The newspaper has not published since, he said.
Medjo was arrested on September 22 and questioned for several days by police, according to local journalists. Officers pressed the journalist to reveal his sources about an exclusive story on a high-profile corruption scandal dubbed “Albatross” involving the fraudulent purchase of a faulty presidential jet in 2004, Gatheu said
Meanwhile, three other newspaper editors, Michel Mombio, Flash Zacharie Ndiomo, and Armand Ondoa, have been in Nkondengui Central Prison in the capital, Yaoundé, for more than three months facing criminal charges for critical coverage of government officials, according to CPJ research.
Mombio, who runs the bimonthly L’Ouest Républicain in the western town of Bafoussam, was arrested on September 4 and charged with attempted fraud, blackmail, and insult over a column about a scientific research minister, according to defense lawyer Blanche Renée Mbenoun. Mombio has been unable to pay 15 million CFA francs (US$31,000) in bail for his provisional release in November. His trial is expected to resume on January 19, according to local journalists.
Ondoa, the editor of the Yaoundé weekly Le Régional, was arrested on October 15 after he arrived at the office of Patrice Tsele Nomo, director of Cameroon’s National School of Administration and Magistracy, for an interview on allegations of corrupt practices in its admission procedures, according to local journalists. Editor Max Mbida of the bimonthly Le Ténor de L’information, who was with Ondoa at the time of the arrest, was also detained, he told CPJ. The next day, Ndiomo, editor of the weekly Zénith was picked up after he arrived at Nomo’s office to do an interview.
A public prosecutor charged Ondoa and Ndiomo with attempted extortion and insulting his character based on a complaint Nomo filed, according to local news reports. Their trial is set to resume on January 22, local journalists told CPJ.
These journalists should never have been prosecuted, and we ask you to ensure that they are released from jail. Sending journalists to prison and harassing them with criminal prosecutions for investigating corruption cows the press into self-censorship and, in the long run, undermines your government’s efforts to root out bad governance in the national interest.
We believe that journalists should not be imprisoned for their work and that defamation and libel are civil, not criminal, matters. We therefore urge you to scrap criminal defamation laws used to prosecute and imprison journalists for their critical coverage of public affairs.