In Cameroon, jailed editor sentenced for ‘insulting’ Biya

New York, December 29, 2009—A Cameroonian newspaper editor, jailed this month after publishing a book excerpt that alleged sexual activities by President Paul Biya, was convicted on Monday of “insulting the head of state.” 

Judge Ibrahim Ba sentenced Jean-Bosco Talla, managing editor of the weekly Germinal, to a one-year suspended term and a fine of 3.15 million CFA francs (US$6,800), the paper’s editor-in-chief, Duke Atangana Etotogo, told CPJ. Talla, who has a week to file an appeal, remained behind bars today at Kondengui Central Prison in the capital, Yaoundé, pending payment of the fine, he said.

“We are deeply disappointed by this ruling,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Democratic countries are increasingly rejecting criminal penalties for libel, especially in the case of public figures.”

The charges stem from Germinal’s publication of an excerpt from a 2001 book alleging sexual activity between Biya and his late predecessor Ahmadou Ahidjo during the transition of power in 1982. The brief item was part of a special package marking the 20th anniversary of Ahidjo’s death in exile, a date widely covered by the local press. The controversial allegations and Talla’s arrest sparked a national debate on press freedom and journalism ethics.

In a December 11 column titled “The Urgency of Regaining Control of the Profession of Journalism,” Presidential Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Anderson Le accused Talla of “undermining the honor and dignity” of the president by publishing irresponsible “rantings” and “nonsense” from a “defamatory book.” Others, like journalists Jean-Baptiste Ketchateng and Alex Gustave Azebaze, questioned the legality of Talla’s arrest and his incommunicado detention at the State Secretariat for Defense.

The government is also imprisoning Lewis Medjo, editor of the defunct tabloid La Détente Libre. Medjo is serving a three-year term on charges of publishing “false news” about a Supreme Court appointment.