Ngota, 38, editor of the private bimonthly Cameroon Express, died in his cell in Kondengui Prison, where he was being held on charges of falsifying a government document. He had been arrested in February based on a criminal complaint from top presidential aide Laurent Esso.
The case began when Ngota and journalists with three other publications jointly sent a series of questions to Esso, secretary-general of the presidency and chairman of the state-run oil company SNH, along with a copy of a document that had been leaked to them. Their questions centered on whether 1.3 billion CFA francs (US$2.6 million) had been improperly paid to three SNH managers as “commissions” in the purchase of an offshore service ship, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. The accompanying document purported to be a June 2008 confidential memorandum signed by Esso that described the payments. (Esso did not publicly comment on the allegations and did not respond to CPJ’s requests for a response.)
On February 5, intelligence agents arrested Ngota along with Harrys Robert Mintya of the weekly Le Devoir, Serge Sabouang of the bimonthly La Nation, and reporter Simon Hervé Nko’o of the weekly Bebela. Agents with the Directorate-General of External Intelligence pressed the journalists for their source of the 2008 memo, holding them each for several days, the journalists later told colleagues. By February 25, news reports said, judicial police had charged the journalists with falsifying a government document. Nko’o had gone into hiding by that time, but the others were rearrested and sent to Kondengui Prison.
Ngota died on April 22 from “abandonment, improper care” and the authorities’ “failure to render assistance,” according to a prison doctor’s initial death certificate, which his family shared with local journalists. A 15-year veteran of the press, Ngota was the first journalist to lose his life in the line of duty in Cameroon since CPJ began documenting media casualties in 1992.
CPJ and other groups immediately called for an independent investigation into the death. President Paul Biya did order a judicial police inquiry “independent of the executive” but appeared to immediately predetermine its result. Biya asserted the case was “not a matter of restriction of freedom of the press,” according to news reports, and that Ngota had died of poor health. The ensuing government inquiry was riddled with irregularities.
Just two days after Biya’s announcement, Communications Minister Issa Tchoroma Bakary said Ngota had tested positive for HIV and had died from its complications–a claim disputed by Ngota’s widow. Tchoroma said the findings were based on a second medical examination of Ngota’s body, which he said had been held in the presence of the journalist’s family–a claim denied by Ngota’s brother, Bruno Ntede, according to Agence France-Presse. Félix Cyriaque Ebolé Bola, a local journalist invited by the government to be an independent witness at the examination, told CPJ that he had been given the wrong address and didn’t make it to the exam.
In September, Justice Minister Amadou Ali presented the findings of his agency’s inquiry into the death, which absolved authorities of any responsibility. The National Union of Cameroonian Journalists and Ngota’s family criticized the investigation as opaque–relatives were never consulted or apprised of its progress–and inherently conflicted because the same judicial police conducting the inquiry were involved in the initial arrests of the four journalists.