Cameroonian journalist Mancho Bibixy, popularly known as BBC, is serving a 15-year sentence on anti-state charges and false news in relation to his radio broadcasts advocating for greater autonomy for the English-speaking minority in Cameroon. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that Bibixy’s arrest was arbitrary and directed the Cameroonian government to immediately release him.
Bibixy, a broadcaster for the private radio station Abakwa FM in Bamenda, was sentenced by a military court in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, on May 25, 2018, according to news reports and a copy of the judgment seen by CPJ. The journalist was found guilty of terrorism, secession, hostility to the fatherland, spreading false information, revolution, insurrection, rebellion, and contempt for civil servants, according to the judgment and a local news report.
Bibixy was tried along with two other journalists, Tsi Conrad and Thomas Awah Junior, and four other Anglophone detainees. Their charges relate to the crisis in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions that began in late 2016 with protests by teachers and lawyers about the perceived marginalization of English by Cameroon’s majority French-speaking government.
Bibixy was arrested at 8:00 p.m. on January 17, 2017, at the home of a friend in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest Region.
Bibixy hosted three different shows on Abakwa FM, including a popular weekday news and current affairs program in pidgin called “The Comedy Show” which was critical of the government’s social and economic marginalization of English speakers, the person said. The show included commentary on October 16, 2016, protests in Bamenda by lawyers demonstrating against the marginalization of English in the region’s courts, according to news reports.
Bibixy was repeatedly summoned by authorities and briefly detained in the weeks leading up to his January 17 arrest, including by the security police and police intelligence in Bamenda, as well as the regional representative of the communication ministry, the person familiar with his case told CPJ. “They played recorded excerpts of the program and accused [Bibixy] of fighting the state,” the person said.
Bibixy was moved to Kondengui Central Prison in May 2017, according to people with knowledge of the case who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Bibixy’s appeal before the military appeals tribunal in Yaoundé began in June 2019, but was characterized by postponements, the person familiar with his case told CPJ in late 2020.
On July 22, 2019, inmates at the Kondengui Central Prison staged protests about their living conditions, including chronic overcrowding, and delays in their cases getting to court, the person said. Bibixy and other prisoners were removed from Kondengui and transferred to the Special Operations Group in Yaoundé and later to the State Secretariat for Defense, where Bibixy was held incommunicado, the person said.
A person with knowledge of the protest in Kondengui Central Prison told CPJ that prison guards hauled Bibixy out of his bed and beat him. Guards tore his clothing and removed his shoes,and forced him to lie down in a prison courtyard while female warders poured dirty water on him and other inmates, the person said. Bibixy was allowed to return to his cell, but a few hours later, prison guards stripped him naked and took him to the Special Operations Group, the person said.
Bibixy and other detainees were taken to the Ekounou court of first instance on August 4, 2019, and they were charged four days later with group rebellion, arson, attempting to escape, looting, and causing bodily harm and theft, the person said.
On September 9, Bibixy was acquitted of all the charges relating to the prison protest except group rebellion, and was sentenced to a further two years, to run concurrently, the same person said.
On August 16, 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Bibixy was being detained arbitrarily and directed the Cameroonian government to take remedial action, including his immediate release, according to a statement by Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted court proceedings in Cameroon, and Bibixy only appeared before the military appeals tribunal five times between December 1, 2019, and late 2020, said the person with knowledge of the case. In a hearing on October 15, 2020, a new judge presided and the appeal had to start afresh, the person said. At that hearing, the case was adjourned to November 19, when it was then postponed again to January 23, 2021, the person said.
In 2020, Bibixy appeared twice before the Yaounde Appeals Court in the Centre Region, in May and July, in relation to his appeal of the group rebellion conviction, the person said. In the hearing on July 16, the judge asked the appellants to identify themselves and then adjourned the matter to October 26; on that date, the judge was not present, the person said.
On October 29, a ruling was handed down in Bibixy’s absence, as only a handful of the appellants were called to attend court proceedings that day, the person said. The verdict was presented in French, but the accused were English speakers and had difficulty understanding the verdicts, the person added. As a result there were multiple different interpretations of the sentence that Bibixy received. Lawyers were not given a copy of the judgement and were told to wait for it to be typed, said the person.
CPJ and 80 other organizations wrote a letter to President Paul Biya on April 6, 2020, urging that he free Bibixy and other jailed journalists amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter noted that many of the imprisoned journalists were suffering from ill health exacerbated by overcrowded prisons.
Bibixy suffered from chronic abdominal pain in 2020 and had an ultrasound, which did not find any abnormalities, said a person with knowledge of his condition, adding that the pain persists.
Communication Minister Rene Sadi, who is also a government spokesperson, did not respond to a text message from CPJ requesting comment in late September 2020. His adviser, Charles Manda, also did not respond to calls or texts via messaging app. CPJ emailed the government’s cabinet secretariat on September 24, 2020, but did not receive any response. Biya did not respond to CPJ’s letter.