Attacks on the Press in 2008: Cameroon

Cameroon’s diverse news media, among the most vibrant in Africa, operated under significant pressure. Influential political leaders used threats, regulatory action, and judicial harassment to censor critical coverage of national affairs, including a controversial constitutional amendment allowing President Paul Biya to seek re-election in 2011, public protests over inflation, and a series of high-profile corruption cases.

In power since 1982, Biya pushed through parliament an amendment scrapping presidential term limits. As the media offered a forum for debate on the constitutional change, authorities moved to limit critical expression. On February 21, a squad of riot police forced Equinoxe Télévision, a private broadcaster in the commercial capital, Douala, off the air. Communications Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam, who ordered the raid, accused the station of being in default of its broadcast licensing fee of 100 million CFA francs (US$227,000). CPJ research showed the enforcement action was selective. Only three private television stations out of 12 have paid the fee, which the government imposed in 2000; the others have been allowed to continue broadcasting.

Sister station Equinoxe Radio was also forced off the air that week. On both television and radio, Equinoxe had been distinguished for its leading coverage of the constitutional debate, airing political programs and live coverage of demonstrations.

Popular opposition to the constitutional amendment, coupled with public discontent over rising fuel prices, led to a nationwide strike of public transportation workers beginning February 25 and continuing for several days. As clashes between security forces and demonstrators unfolded, journalists such as camerawoman Lilianne Nyatcha of Spectrum TV were caught in the middle. Nyatcha was filming a standoff between demonstrators and police in Douala when a man in military clothing confiscated her camera and other recording equipment at gunpoint. She did not recover the footage, although she eventually got the camera back, she told CPJ.

Canal 2 cameraman Eric Golf Kouatchou was arrested and his footage destroyed after he filmed police dispersing a February 27 demonstration. Police told him that he was filming without authorization, although Cameroonian law sets no such requirement. Kouatchou told CPJ that police had forced him and protesters to clear debris along several miles of roadway as punishment.

That day, after deadly clashes between protesters and security forces, Biya gave a televised address in which he called for calm even as he blamed the violence on “sorcerer’s apprentices,” a derogatory reference to opposition activists, according to international news reports.

Several anonymous callers criticized the presidential address the next morning during a call-in news program on Magic FM, a popular station in the capital, Yaoundé, and a partner with the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America. Armed soldiers soon surrounded Magic FM, impounded much of its equipment, and accused staff members of  “broadcasting irresponsibly.” Although no official order was ever issued, the police action effectively took the station off the air until July.

Other journalists—including Canal 2 reporter Yvonne Cathy Nken and Radio France Internationale correspondent Polycarpe Essomba—went into hiding after receiving threatening phone calls linked to their coverage of the political unrest, according to CPJ research. Jean Marc Soboth, national secretary of the National Syndicate of Journalists in Cameroon, said he received threats for speaking out against press freedom abuses.

Rampant corruption continued to afflict nearly every aspect of Cameroonian life, including government, law enforcement, and commerce. Authorities have prosecuted scores of officials since launching an anticorruption drive dubbed Operation Epervier (French for “Sparrowhawk”) in February 2006. Despite that effort, Cameroon continued to rank among the world’s worst countries—141st out of 180—in terms of official corruption, according to a September report published by the nongovernmental organization Transparency International.

Probing news coverage of high-profile corruption cases was met with official resistance. Communications Minister Essam accused unnamed media outlets of “manipulating public opinion,” while judges and prosecutors sought to limit press coverage. In June, for example, Yaoundé General Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Mvondo Evezo’o threatened to press charges carrying up to three years in prison and fines of 5 million CFA francs (US$10,000) against any journalist reporting details of ongoing corruption investigations.

The warning followed a series of press revelations in the “Albatross” scandal, which involved the purchase of a faulty Boeing 767 presidential jet that nearly crashed on its inaugural flight in 2004. In its May 26 issue, the leading daily Le Messager described the statements of more than a dozen officials questioned by the police in the case. The story led police in Yaoundé to summon reporters Marie-Noelle Guichi and Jean-François Channon for questioning. Both journalists were questioned about their sources but released without charge.

Three other journalists—Editor-in-Chief Thierry Ngogang of Spectrum TV, reporter Ananie Rabier Bindzi of Canal 2, and freelance journalist Alex Gustave Azebazé—were questioned by police in Douala in connection with a June 1 Spectrum program discussing the presidential jet case.

Journalists faced harassment while conducting their own reporting into alleged corruption. In February, police in the southern town of Zoétélé arrested Editor Jean Bosco Talla and reporter Hervé Kemete of the Douala-based biweekly Le Front while they were researching the real estate holdings of top officials. The two were held for five days before being released. Defense Minister Rémy Ze Meka and former Finance Minister Polycarpe Abah Abah filed complaints accusing the two journalists of espionage and attempted burglary, but no formal charges were ever filed. A month later, Abah Abah was himself jailed on allegations of embezzlement.

Reporters and editors with the weekly Gestion & Perspectives said they received telephone threats and were subjected to repeated police interrogations in January after running a story describing allegations of real estate fraud, Editor Nestor Nga Etoga told CPJ.

In Cameroon’s Anglophone Southwest province, independent news media operated under a constant pattern of police interrogations, threats, and libel suits, CPJ research found. In June, police in the southwest town of Kumba, north of Douala, questioned editor Francis Ndengu of the bimonthly Eden, over a story alleging mismanagement by the local mayor. Ndengu was not charged but remained under official investigation in late year. The mayor, Prince Ekale Mukete, disputed the allegations and threatened legal action against several other journalists.

While much of Cameroon’s print and broadcast media focused on political turmoil and corruption, the buoyant tabloid press trained its sights on other topics. The tabloid sector, which included a multitude of small-circulation publications, covered the nation’s influential personalities, often with little restraint. Some publications faced severe legal action as a result.

Grégoire Owona, the president’s liaison with parliament, won a criminal libel suit against the weekly Nouvelle Afrique in August. The case stemmed from the newspaper’s 2006 publication of a list of purported “secret homosexuals” that included Owona. Homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon. A magistrate in Yaoundé sentenced the paper’s editor, Biloa Ayissi, to six months in prison and a fine of one million CFA francs (US$2,000). The paper stopped publishing after the ruling, although Ayissi was free pending appeal.

In September, an editorial criticizing Scientific Research Minister Madeleine Tchuinté led to the arrest of editor Michel Mombio of the bimonthly L’Ouest Républicain in Bafoussam, northeast of Douala. Mombio was charged with attempted fraud, blackmail, and insult over an editorial that was harshly critical of Tchuinté’s background. He was denied bail pending trial. The same month, editor Lewis Medjo of the weekly La Détente Libre in Douala was charged with publishing false news in a column alleging a falling-out between Biya and the president of the country’s supreme court, Alexis Dipanda Mouelle, according to local journalists. He, too, was denied bail pending trial.

Players on Cameroon’s national soccer team, the Indomitable Lions, clashed with journalists. On May 30, after dozens of journalists walked out of a pre-game press conference to protest player behavior, star striker Samuel Eto’o head-butted reporter Philippe Boney of Radio Tiéméni Siantou. Several eyewitnesses told CPJ that Eto’o’s bodyguards roughed up Boney, while goalkeeper coach Thomas Nkono confiscated the mobile phones of reporters attempting to document the fracas. Boney was left with a broken arm and was placed on six-week medical leave. Eto’o initially claimed that Boney had insulted him, although he later apologized on national television.

Financial pressures compounded problems for the press. Local journalists said the press has been beset by shoddy craftsmanship and unethical practices such as the acceptance of bribes. Some journalists campaigned for better wages, but the country’s diverse media—weakened by ethnic, political, and linguistic divisions—struggled to promote professional advancements.

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