The government sought to curtail popular protests and related news coverage as President Paul Biya extended 29 years of rule in an October election. Having consolidated power through constitutional amendments that removed term limits and stacked the membership of the election oversight agency with loyalists, Biya swept 78 percent of the vote in a poll marked by low turnout and allegations by the United States and France that irregularities occurred. Twenty-two opponents, none competitive, split the rest of the balloting. With Biya’s overwhelming dominance of the political and journalistic space, social media became the primary means to criticize his record on political repression, poverty, and corruption. In February, government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary summoned journalists to his office and accused Cameroonian social media users, many of whom were based abroad, of “manipulating” young people to destabilize the country. A month later, the government temporarily shut down a Twitter-via-SMS service to foil possible protests. Security forces obstructed journalists covering the violent dispersal of small-scale protests, although citizen journalists posted several videos to YouTube that showed heavy-handed police tactics. Throughout the year, public figures used their influence to prosecute journalists investigating corruption. At least three critical journalists were detained for varying periods.
In a September decree, the Communications Ministry told independent news broadcasters not to air any political or debate programs ahead of an October election. Under a 2000 decree, the government could impose penalties for violations of such directives.
Due to hefty licensing fees imposed by a 2000 decree, the overwhelming majority of domestic private broadcasters operated without official licenses, according to CPJ research. Under a de facto policy of “administrative tolerance,” the government allowed most private stations to operate without a license. But it then selectively enforced the regulations to silence critical news coverage at politically sensitive periods.
Intervening at politically sensitive times, the Communications Ministry ordered critical independent broadcasters off the air for failure to pay licensing fees. In doing so, the ministry abandoned its usual policy of “administrative tolerance.” Most of the stations returned to the air after months-long suspensions.
Silencing critical news coverage:
February 19, 2003: RTA and Canal 2
March 14, 2003: Magic FM
May 23, 2003: Freedom FM
November 14, 2003: Radio Veritas
February 21, 2008: Equinoxe Télévision
February 28, 2008: Magic FM
August 17, 2009: Sky One Radio
October 6, 2009: Démenti FM
Editor Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota, 38, of the private newspaper Cameroon Express, died in Kondengui Prison on April 22, 2010, while being held on fabricated charges of falsifying a government document. Ngota was arrested with three other journalists after they sent questions to a senior presidential adviser about a confidential government memo. Despite an international outcry, no one was held accountable for Ngota’s death.
Timeline of the Ngota case:
February 5, 2010: Security agents questioned Ngota over the leaked memo, which described alleged kickbacks to state oil company executives.
February 26, 2010: Ngota was arrested and charged with forgery of an official document.
April 22, 2010: Ngota died in prison after being denied adequate medical care; CPJ said it held the government responsible.
April 25, 2010: The United States called for the death to be investigated “comprehensively, transparently, and without delay.”
April 26, 2010: Biya ordered an inquiry but asserted that Ngota’s death was due to poor health and that his imprisonment was not related to journalism.
May 2010: The U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed concerns about “deplorable” prison conditions, including inadequate health care, lengthy pretrial detentions, violations of due process, and “allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and death threats” against detained journalists. The committee called for a thorough forensic investigation into Ngota’s death.
September 14, 2010: The justice minister issued a report that attributed Ngota’s death to HIV, and absolved the government of any responsibility. CPJ and Cameroonian journalists reject the findings.
April 21, 2011: CPJ urged Biya to implement reforms ensuring no other journalist goes to prison for press offenses.
Responding to a growing, critical blogosphere, Biya and the National Assembly enacted
legislation in December 2010 that set a prison penalty
of up to four years for electronic dissemination of unverified news and recordings of political speech without the
subject’s consent, according to CPJ
Attacks on online expression:
July 2009: Government spokesman Issa Tchiroma accused Cameroonian social media users in France of engaging in “cyberterrorism.” Social media users tried to organize anti-Biya protests during the president’s visit to Paris that year, according to news reports.
November 2009: Telecommunications Minister Jean-Pierre Biyiti Essam announced a government plan to control and monitor incoming and outgoing Internet traffic, according to news reports. There was no public indication the government had implemented the plan.
March 2010: The National Assembly passed two laws giving the president wide discretion to direct the intelligence services to act against groups using new technologies against “the vital interests of the nation,” according to news reports.
December 2010: The National Assembly passed and Biya signed a law on cybersecurity and cybercrime that set prison sentences of up to four years for anyone who “publishes or propagates news by electronic communications or information system news without being able to attest their veracity.”