CPJ is honored to present its 2017 International Press Freedom Award to Cameroonian journalist Ahmed Abba.
Ahmed Abba, 38, a correspondent for Radio France Internationale's (RFI) Hausa service, was arrested in July 2015 as he left a press briefing at the office of a local governor in Maroua, the capital of Cameroon's far north region, according to RFI. Abba, who was taken to the capital city of Yaoundé, was denied access to a lawyer until October 2015, RFI told CPJ. Officials did not take a statement from Abba until November 13, more than three months after his arrest, which is against the law, according to news reports that cited his lawyers.
RFI reported that Abba mostly covered refugee issues but also covered attacks carried out by Boko Haram. In a June 2016 statement, RFI said Abba's reporting was professional and called for his immediate release.
RFI cited one of Abba's lawyers, Charles Tchoungang, as saying that the journalist was questioned about the activities of the extremist sect Boko Haram, which renamed itself the Islamic State in West Africa. Prosecutors said Abba did not inform authorities he had been in contact with Boko Haram.
Abba's trial began in February 2016. He was initially charged with complicity in acts of terrorism and failure to denounce acts of terrorism, under Cameroon's 2014 anti-terrorism law, according to news reports. Since 2001, governments across the world have repeatedly exploited national security laws to silence critical journalists covering sensitive issues, including insurgencies and political opposition.
After numerous court appearances and delays, a military tribunal on April 20, 2017, acquitted Abba of "apologizing for acts of terrorism" but convicted him of two other terrorism-related charges. A week later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 55 million Central African francs (US$91,133), Clément Nakong, another of Abba's lawyers, told CPJ. His lawyers are appealing the decision.
The harsh prison sentence given to Abba serves as a direct warning to other journalists in Cameroon, where press freedom has come under heightened attack since late 2016. At least seven other journalists were imprisoned and internet service was cut for three months in two western regions.
CPJ has reported on Abba's case since his arrest and has called on Cameroonian President Paul Biya to free him. In 2017, Abba was the first journalist featured in CPJ's 2017 Free the Press campaign, which calls for increased awareness of journalists imprisoned on anti-state charges. At least 182 of 259 journalists jailed in late 2016 were held on anti-state charges, according to CPJ's 2016 prison census.
UPDATE: On November 20, 2018, Ahmed Abba attended CPJ's 2018 International Press Freedom Awards and received his award in person.
The text of Ahmed Abba's acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.
Ladies and gentlemen, I must say I'm very happy to be in the midst of this wonderful family. I missed the last awards dinner, but I received postcards from you with loads of words of encouragement, which helped me almost forget the fact that I was in prison for my work.
The Cameroonian secret service chained me, tortured me, and sentenced me to 10 years imprisonment. But I was freed and I am still a journalist.
I feel that part of my role is to identify dangers and opportunities and bring them to the public. This is what I was doing in northern Cameroon when the government arrested me and this is what I continue to do now. And the smiles on your faces encourage me to do more even after I leave this auditorium. I am here now thanks to your support. As a journalist who knows the true meaning of persecution, I know there is no one else like you.
I wish to give specific thanks to Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator for CPJ; to Bill Whitaker, who received the award on my behalf last year; and to the management of Radio France Internationale for standing by me.
I dedicate this award to all the journalists who suffer under various regimes in the course of their work.