President Paul Biya and his wife, Chantal, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2014. Cameroon's government is seen by some journalists as being sensitive to criticism. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
President Paul Biya and his wife, Chantal, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2014. Cameroon's government is seen by some journalists as being sensitive to criticism. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

In Cameroon, press struggles with financial and official constraints

On March 16, Cameroon’s Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakari, denounced French online news outlet Le Monde as unprofessional at a press conference after it reported on allegations that President Paul Biya was in hospital in Geneva. The incident is symbolic of the growing problem in Cameroon, which has a growing but poorly funded independent press and a government resistant to criticism.

In my experience, the press is muzzled in Cameroon. Before fleeing the country in 2013, I was arrested while covering a strike at the University of Buea in 2006, and the 50th anniversary of separatist movement the Southern Cameroons National Council in 2011. In Cameroon, threats become routine for courageous journalists who brave the odds to report facts.

The Liberty Laws passed in 1990 and the 1996 Constitution of Cameroon guarantee freedom of expression and the press. The laws ushered in a mass media boom and, according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as of 2012, there were about 400 privately owned newspapers, 375 privately owned radio stations, and 19 privately owned television stations; most of them broadcasting from the urban economic center of Douala and the political capital, Yaoundé. Internet access was little more than 6 percent in 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

The state-owned Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) and its daily newspaper, Cameroon Tribune, which publishes in French and English, are often criticized as biased by the opposition in Cameroon. The opposition says the station devotes extensive time to praising the president and seldom covers opposition political party events. There are five privately owned and run daily French language newspapers, notably, Le Messager, Le Jour, Mutations, Le Quotidien de l’economie, and La Nouvelle Expression. There are two bi-weekly English newspapers: The Post and Eden. The rest are weekly or are published when financial means are available–the high cost of importing print materials for production can be prohibitive.

Journalists in Cameroon have a precarious existence. Salaries are low–approximately 48,459 Central African francs (US$80) per month–even after serving a year’s probation, and many work without a contract. Journalists struggle to obtain equipment such as recorders, cameras, headphones, and desktop computers. Internet facilities are a luxury in most newsrooms and smart phones a rarity.

A majority of journalists are not affiliated with the National Social Insurance Fund and so are not entitled to any pension under the social security program. Although private media owners are expected to make such provisions for their staff, many fail to do so. Media companies seldom sign contracts with their staff. I am a living example. For seven years–2006 to 2013–I worked with Equinox Radio and TV without a contract and no enrolment in the social insurance fund. I cannot boast of ever having a pay slip.

Getting paid in Cameroon was really a drama. At Equinox, we would go to a local bank or financial institution where accounts had been opened for us. We were given check booklets with the name of the journalist and the name of the bank, but not the name of the media house paying you. We would present the check to the bank and be given money. You sign, but have no paper to take away with you.

Equinox Radio and TV did not respond to repeated calls from CPJ seeking comment about claims that staff were not enrolled in the social insurance fund or offered contracts.

According to the labor code of Cameroon, companies are obligated to ensure that staff are covered by the social insurance fund. In the case of journalists however, very few are affiliated. However, journalists working for state-owned newspapers are covered automatically because they are government workers.

These conditions can breed corruption. Veteran editor and former journalist with CRTV, Ntemfack Ofege, decried what he sees as apparent relationship between corruption and the government when he spoke with me. “Why would the president’s cabinet dish out millions to the press at election time?” he asked. “Why would the prime minister’s office have newspapers and newspaper men on its covert payroll?”

The president’s office and minister of communications did not respond to CPJ’s requests, through phone and email, for a comment on the claims that money was handed to the press at election time, and that the prime minister’s office has members of the press on a covert payroll.

Though the Liberty Laws guarantee a free press, access to official information remains a challenge. Events at the presidency are covered exclusively by the state media. Reality is that travel by the president, prime minister, and other top government officials are the exclusive preserve of state media. Presidential telegraphs and communiqués from the ministerial council meetings are sent only to state media. “It is an aberration that presidential trips are covered only by CRTV and that official telegraphs are sent only to them,” director of information at the privately owned Spectrum Television, Thierry Ngogang, told me via Facebook.

The president’s office and minister of communications did not respond to a CPJ request for comment on claims that the independent press are denied access to official information and presidential trips.

Independent journalists are forced to use anonymous sources, which can cause problems. One way to address this would be to allow all journalists equal access to information. This would reduce the use of secondary sources and speculation, which too often lands journalists in court. The publisher of Le Courrier, Olivier Mbelle, is being persecuted currently because in January his paper reported about a case of alleged embezzlement by a senior government official. Mbelle had to appear before the government’s media regulatory body, the National Communication Council, in February where he was accused of unethical journalism. Subsequently the head of police summoned him, demanding that he reveal his sources, according to news reports.

The main threat to the media and journalists in Cameroon remains the government. Though Minister of Communication Bakari often claims that the press is free, defamation, slander, and libel are still criminal offenses. The publishers of The Monitor and Zenith newspapers, Amungwa Tanyi Nicodemus and “Flash” Zacharie Ndiomo, have recently been released from jail where Nichodemus was serving a four-month sentence for criminal defamation, and Ndiomo had been charged with libel. Three other journalists are still before the Yaoundé military tribunal. They are accused of withholding information that could threaten state security. The government claims to have information that there was a plot to destabilize Cameroon, and that the journalists failed to disclose it to the government.

The publisher of Cameroon Express, Germain S. Ngota Ngota, known as Bibi, died in jail in 2010. He was imprisoned earlier that year over his investigation into corruption at the state-run oil company, SNH, according to CPJ research.

Aside from legal action and harassment from authorities, at least one journalist has been the victim of an attack. In April 2014, Denis Nkwebo, a senior reporter for Le Jour, told CPJ his car was destroyed in an explosion while parked outside his Doula residence. Nkwebo told CPJ that before the attack he had been warned by acquaintances and contacts in the government to be careful in his investigative reporting of the country’s security forces. The Communications Minister did not return CPJ’s calls shortly after the attack, seeking comment.

The selective use of licensing for media outlets is another issue. The government, through an unofficial policy known as “administrative tolerance,” is able to justify cracking down on media houses that it sees as not toeing the line. Under it, unlicensed news outlets are allowed to report but, if at any time the government disapproves of their reporting, it can crack down on the outlet in question for operating without a license. “President Paul Biya can thus claim that newspapers and TV stations are flourishing in Cameroon, but the consequence of tolerance administrative is that the police can come down on anybody at any time, and the police do so particularly when those outlets criticize Paul Biya,” human rights advocate and author Patrice Nganang told PEN America in 2013.

In another example, in the days leading up to nationwide strike action in 2008 against hunger, poor living standards, and a modification to the constitution that would give the president a life-term in office, the government shut down Equinox Radio and TV station. The outlet remained closed from February until July 2008. According to the government, Equinox had not paid its licensing fees, and was operating under the so-called administrative tolerance. According to reports, journalists at state broadcaster CRTV told reporters that the government had warned the station, through intermediaries, not to broadcast images of violent protests against changing the constitution. Equinox Radio and TV did not respond to a CPJ request for comment about the alleged warning.

To ensure an independent press, the issue of administrative tolerance has to be brought to an end. Bodies like the NCC have to be set up by journalists so that their independence is protected. The government must avoid discrimination in the issuing of licenses to media houses and what it terms “financial assistance” to the press–a system that could be abused and lead to corruption. The lack of an independent regulator further destabilizes the media.

The government remains sensitive to what journalists broadcast because the 34-year-old regime tends to see any form of criticism as an attempt to destabilize the country. The minister of communication often calls critics unpatriotic.

Cameroon’s media will continue to lag if key issues such as production costs, government’s patronage through financial aid, access to state information, and adequate training of journalists are not addressed. Without these steps, the people of Cameroon will continue to be deprived of their right to critical, reliable information, and a variety of opinions.