Journalist detained for 8 days over photo dispute

On April 16, 2009, police in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, arrested James Mbouma, deputy managing editor of the weekly L’indépendant, in connection with a legal dispute over ownership of photographs he published.

In a complaint, Mbouma’s former employer, Gilbert Avang, who runs the bimonthly Depêche du Cameroun, accused L’indépendant of publishing photographs that belonged to his newspaper. Mbouma denied that the photos belonged to his old paper.

The photographs showed property belonging to Ibrahim Talba Malla, director of an agency that regulates oil prices, according to Mbouma’s lawyer, Elame Vonny. While at Depêche du Cameroun, Mbouma had begun investigating Malla’s assets, but resigned after an argument with Avang before publishing the story, according to L’indépendant Managing Editor Richard Max Mbossoh Mpandjo.

On April 24, Jean Bosco Esso, public prosecutor for the Ekounou district in Yaoundé, dismissed the charges and released Mbouma. According to Mpandjo, a legal dispute over the photos was expected to continue in court, with a potential countersuit by L’indépendant on the grounds of “abusive detention.”

Two days before the police arrest, military intelligence agents in Yaoundé detained Mbouma in connection with a series of articles about the military, in particular a March 16 story headlined “Uneasiness in the armed forces,” according to Mpandjo and other local journalists. Mpandjo told CPJ that officers questioned the journalist for seven hours over the sources of the stories, and they also searched Mbouma’s residence without warrant.