Protesters block a road in Bamenda, Cameroon, December 8, 2016. (Reuters)
Protesters block a road in Bamenda, Cameroon, December 8, 2016. (Reuters)

Press freedom under attack in Cameroon

Abuja, Nigeria, December 16, 2016–The Cameroonian government and security services should immediately reverse a series of repressive measures that have produced a crisis of media freedom in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

In recent weeks, authorities arrested a journalist covering protests; suspended dozens of newspapers and broadcasters permission to operate; permanently banned three newspapers from publishing and their publishers from practicing journalism; and sanctioned dozens more journalists. The speaker of the National Assembly in November called the use of social media “a new form of terrorism.” The Ministry of Communications, according to media reports, last month asked companies to cut the internet. Sixteen months after his arrest, Radio France Internationale journalist Ahmed Abba remains in prison, awaiting a verdict in his military trial.

“Each day that Cameroon’s government perpetrates ever-wider attacks on the press, the more it appears repressive and desperate,” CPJ West Africa Representative Peter Nkanga said. “Cameroon should immediately and unconditionally release radio journalist Ahmed Abba and stop trying to muzzle the media.”

Masked security officers on December 11 arrested Zigoto Tchaya, a reporter with the broadcaster France 24, after Tchaya interviewed barrister Harmony Bobga, who articulated demands of demonstrators from predominantly Anglophone regions of Cameroon who say the Francophone central government has marginalized English-speaking Cameroonians, according to media reports. Tchaya was released after a day, according to media reports. Anglophone regions of Cameroon have seen street protests, sit-ins, and labor strikes in recent months. Last week, at least four people were killed when police forcibly dispersed a protest in the city of Bamenda, near the Nigerian border, according to press reports and human rights groups.

The Cameroonian government had previously attempted more sweeping measures to confound the protests. The government-run daily newspaper The Cameroon Tribune on November 1 described social media as “fast becoming a threat to peace and a secret instrument of manipulation.” Cavaye Yeguie Djibril, the speaker of Cameroon’s National Assembly, in a November 10 speech to parliament, went further, calling the use of social media “a new form of terrorism…as dangerous as a missile,” according to media reports. According to the pro-opposition Cameroon Journal, Cameroonian Information Minister Issa Tchiroma on November 17 met with leading mobile phone and internet service providers to urge them to suspend access to the internet in the country. The reported request was not implemented.

Cameroonian journalists told CPJ that the Ministry of Communications on December 1 had written to private broadcasters instructing them to stop broadcasting political debates. “Owners of private radio and TV stations are called upon to stop all roundtable discussions on their networks concerning the current political atmosphere in the southwest region,” the directive read, according to a photograph of the document published to Twitter by Cameroonian journalist Comfort Moussa.

Meanwhile, Radio France Internationale Hausa-service correspondent Ahmed Abba is scheduled to appear again before a military tribunal on charges of “complicity” with and “non-denunciation of acts of terrorism” on January 4, 2017, according to press reports. RFI told CPJ that the journalist was arrested on July 30, 2015, as he left a press conference, and denied access to his lawyers until October 19, 2015, when the military tribunal asked computer forensics experts to examine his computers and mobile phones. Those experts have not yet returned their report, according to France 24. In the meantime, according to press reports, interrogators questioned him about the activities of the militant group Boko Haram, which has renamed itself the Islamic State in West Africa. If convicted, Abba could face the death penalty, according to media reports.

On December 6, the National Communication Council (NCC)–Cameroon’s media regulator, made up of members appointed by the president–handed down 24 sanctions imposing varying penalties on 14 publishers and their newspapers, one radio station managing director, and 15 journalists from 10 print and online newspapers, radio, and television stations for reports the council called “unfounded, offensive, and insinuating allegations” regarding government officials, business executives, and private individuals, according to media reports and CPJ’s review of the 111-page document.

Among the most stringent sanctions were the permanent banning of the weekly Aurore Plus and Aurore newspapers from publishing, and the imposition of a permanent ban on the newspapers’ publisher, Michel Michaut Moussala, from practicing journalism because of the newspaper’s repeated publication of “unfounded allegations” against the former CEO of Cameroon Airlines, according to media reports. The weekly Dépeche du Cameroun newspaper and Gilbert Avang, the newspaper’s publisher, were similarly permanently banned, the reports said.

Ndi Eugene Ndi, editor of the bi-monthly NewsWatch newspaper, told CPJ that several of the newspapers defied the suspensions to continue publishing. Ndi said the NCC could ask courts to enforce the sanctions.

The National Union of Cameroonian Journalists called the sanctions “unacceptable and incomprehensible,” and called for press solidarity in rejecting the sanctions, according to media reports.