Fearing Egypt-style revolt, Cameroon bars Twitter service

“For security reasons, the government of Cameroon requests the suspension of the Twitter sms integration on the network,” announced a March 8 tweet by Bouba Kaélé, marketing manager of the Cameroon unit of South Africa-based telecommunications provider MTN. The announcement has since disappeared from Kaélé’s Twitter feed, but was memorialized by a handful of Twitter users who retweeted the comment and the Cameroonian daily Le Jour, which printed a story.

MTN later confirmed the suspension, but without explanation: “Twitter SMS Connectivity Service suspended from March 07, 2011 till further notice.” The Twitter via SMS offered by MTN Cameroon, one of three telecommunications operators in the country, allowed anyone with a regular phone to punch in a code and start receiving tweets for free.

As ephemeral as Kaélé’s comment was, his tweet provided a rare insight into a pattern of restrictions imposed by Cameroon’s government on the free flow of information as authorities, nervous about Egypt-style popular uprisings, clamp down on traditional and social media outlets.

On February 22, Cameroonian government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary summoned journalists to his office for a press conference in which he issued a warning directed at Cameroonians in the diaspora using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to call for a march to end the 29-year rule of President Paul Biya. The protest was to coincide with an opposition-led march in Douala to honor demonstrators killed by security forces during February 2008 anti-government protests. Authorities banned last month’s march and deployed security forces to violently disperse a small turnout of marchers.

They did not stop there, attacking journalists covering the events as well. Several journalists were assaulted, and their footage or photographs destroyed. Agence France-Presse correspondent Reinnier Kazé was held overnight. “They seized my camera and my identity papers. They held me for 20 minutes before releasing me without returning the tape,” Charles Talom, a cameraman for the London-based satellite station Vox Africa, told CPJ. The destroyed footage showed police using a water cannon against protestors, he said.

Despite the repression, citizen journalists using their cellphones posted videos on Youtube that captured police beatings of protestors and the use of water cannons. André Blaise Essama, an activist and blogger, told CPJ he was picked up by military police as he filmed the scene. “They undressed me, brutalized me, and tortured me. I received several kicks on my head and on my left arm that I used to shield myself from the boots of the military police officers,” Essama said, describing his ordeal. Officers allegedly accused Essama of being a “dangerous journalist” who was only interested in events banned by the government. “In the cell, they poured dirty water on me and I was asked for whom I work for, who has bought my equipment, who has asked me to film, and for whom I will broadcast the footage.”

Internet penetration is low in Cameroon: The International Telecommunications Union puts the rate at just 3.8 percent. But that figure obscures the public’s growing use of cyber cafés to access and then share critical news and information.

With traditional media outlets heavily dependent on advertising from the government and telecommunications operators, self-censorship is common, U.S.-based Cameroonian blogger Dibussi Tande told CPJ. Diaspora blogs, he said, are now outlets for critical stories that local journalists can’t run in traditional domestic media.