Abidjan, June 20, 2019 -- Cameroonian authorities should immediately release journalist Paul Chouta and drop criminal defamation and false news charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On May 28, in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, five police officers arrested Chouta, who works as a reporter for the privately owned Cameroon Web news website, in response to a defamation complaint filed by French Cameroonian writer Calixthe Beyala, according to Cameroon Web editor-in-chief Emmanuel Vitus, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app, and a person with knowledge of the case who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Chouta was detained at the local police headquarters following his arrest, and on May 31 was denied bail, according to his lawyer, Emmanuel Simh, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app. On June 10, he was charged with defamation, spreading false news, and hate speech; the hate speech charge was dropped the following day, and Chouta was sent to the Kondengui maximum security prison in Yaounde to await trial, according to Vitus and the person with knowledge of the case.
His next court appearance is scheduled for July 9, Vitus said.
"Instead of holding Paul Chouta in a maximum security prison, authorities should release him and encourage Calixthe Beyala to seek redress through civil remedies, not criminal action," said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal in New York. "Criminal defamation and false news laws have no place in a fair and just country, and Cameroon should change such laws."
If found guilty, Chouta could face up to six months in prison and a fine of 2 million Central African francs ($3,447) for the defamation charge, and up to five years in jail and a fine of 1 million francs ($1,723) for the false news charge, according to the Cameroonian penal code.
In several posts on Beyala's personal Facebook page, which CPJ reviewed but which have since been deleted or set to private, Beyala alleged that Chouta and other unspecified individuals made defamatory allegations about her personal life on social media and on the Facebook news page Le TGV de l'info, which Chouta manages.
CPJ called Beyala and messaged her on Facebook and WhatsApp, but did not receive any response.
Cameroonian Deputy Justice Minister Jean De Dieu Momo told CPJ via WhatsApp message that he was "not aware if web journalist is a profession organized by Cameroon law," and declined to comment further on the case.
CPJ called and sent messages to Charles Manda, an adviser to the country's communications minister, and Joyce Ndjem, the national communications chief for the Cameroonian police, but did not receive a response.
Chouta received repeated anonymous threats in recent months, and was attacked outside his home in February by suspected government agents, as CPJ reported at the time.
Vitus told CPJ that he suspected that the government's harsh charges against Chouta, along with denying him bail, were in retaliation for his reporting on the government. The editor described Chouta as a vocal critic of Paul Biya, Cameroon's president since 1982. Chouta's recent reporting covered topics such as the arrest of a former Cameroonian government official and abuse allegations against police and a pro-government journalist.
Cameroon is the third worst jailer of journalists in Africa, after Egypt and Eritrea, with at least seven journalists behind bars for their work on December 1, 2018, according to CPJ's annual prison census. It is the second-worst jailer of journalists on false news charges in the world, after Egypt, according to the census.