Durban, September 15, 2023—Cameroonian authorities should immediately lift an indefinite ban against The Post newspaper in the Southwest Region and stop any retaliatory action against the privately owned media outlet and its staff, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
On Tuesday, September 12, Southwest regional governor Bernard Okalia Bilai banned The Post until further notice, accusing the outlet of “flagrant violation of professional norms,” according to a copy of the order reviewed by CPJ and media reports.
The ban followed the publication of a social media post showing a copy of the newspaper’s Monday front page with a headline, “66% of Cameroonians want a military coup.” It was based on a September 9 report in the weekly The Continent and a tweet about a survey of citizens in 36 countries between 2021 and 2022 by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network based in Ghana. The survey found that while most Africans disapprove of military rule, “a slim majority (53%) are willing to endorse military intervention if elected leaders abuse their power,” including 66% of respondents in Cameroon, who agreed that “it was legitimate for the armed forces to take control of the government when elected leaders abuse power for their own ends.”
The Post’s senior editors pulled the edition before it could be printed, and a new one without the headline or article was published and distributed, but it was too late to delete the social media post that was uploaded without final approval, according to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Bouddih Adams, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a statement on the newspaper’s Facebook page.
A spate of coups in the region, including most recently in neighboring Gabon, where the Bongo family had ruled for 56 years, has led to speculation and fear among some leaders, including Cameroon’s president Paul Biya, who has been in power for more than 40 years, that they might be next. On August 30, the day of the Gabon coup, Biya announced a shakeup in the defense ministry and armed forces, giving no reason for the decision.
The governor’s action against The Post comes less than two months after Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji, urged regional governors to closely monitor the activities of media outlets and NGOs operating in Cameroon and warned the media “to think twice before publishing or making public pronouncements.”
“Cameroonian authorities, including Southwest Governor Bernard Okalia Bilal, should immediately lift the sanctions against The Post, especially as the headline and article never made it into print and its senior executives were quick to act and limit any fallout,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “The fact that The Post is being sanctioned and penalized on three fronts by authorities is not only excessive and disproportionate, but also proves that press freedom remains under threat in Cameroon, especially after Minister Paul Atanga Nji’s recent warning to the media to toe the line or face the consequences.”
The Post’s coup-themed front-page headline (the story was inside) caused consternation among Cameroon’s ruling elite and prompted Joseph Chebongkeng Kalabubse, the president of Cameroon’s media regulator, the National Communication Council, to rebuke the newspaper on Tuesday, saying it went against “the responsibility and professional rules that guide journalism given the country’s socio-political context,” according to a media report and a recording of his statement reviewed by CPJ.
The same day, a committee on government funding of private media, under the Ministry of Communications, barred the newspaper from receiving an annual grant because of the headline, according to at least two people with knowledge of the decision who asked not to be named as they are not authorized to comment.
Both actions were taken while newspaper representatives appeared before an NCC inquiry on Wednesday, with the media regulator ruling on the next day that The Post and its publisher, Yerima Kini Nsom, should be suspended for one month each for the headline on social media “bearing information likely to disrupt national cohesion and social peace,” according to a copy of the decision reviewed by CPJ and a video recording of the NCC press conference.
Also on Thursday, two representatives of the newspaper were questioned by the governor’s head of security about the source of their information, Nsom told CPJ via messaging app.
Neither Bilal nor Kalabubse replied to CPJ’s questions via messaging app.
Nsom said he did not believe that the NCC decision would trump the governor’s decision in the Southwest Region, where the paper is headquartered. “It is a grotesque situation wherein many cooks are involved in the cooking of one pot of soup. The governor is using an obnoxious law on the maintenance of public order, which is virtually a blank cheque for him to abuse office and infringe on freedoms, especially press freedom,” Nsom said, adding that the publication and staff “remained vulnerable” to further harassment and possibly even arrest.
Afrobarometer’s director of analysis Carolyn Logan told CPJ via email that its national partner in Cameroon had been questioned by the regional governor and media authorities. “But they have jointly reviewed the information that was released on the Afrobarometer website, and as of now there have been no consequences for our partner” or Afrobarometer, she said, adding that the headline in question did not accurately reflect the findings released by Afrobarometer.