Cameroonian journalist Paul Chouta was jailed in May 2019 and held in pretrial detention for more than a year, after which his trial began but was repeatedly delayed. He is charged with criminal defamation and false news following a defamation complaint by French-Cameroonian writer Calixthe Beyala.
Chouta covers politics, corruption, local news, and human rights for independent news website Cameroon Web, its editor-in-chief Emmanuel Vitus told CPJ. Chouta also operates the Facebook news page Le TGV de l’info, which has more than 181,000 followers.
On May 28, 2019, in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, five police officers in plainclothes arrested Chouta in response to the complaint by Beyala, according to Vitus, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.
In several posts on Beyala’s personal Facebook page, which CPJ reviewed in June 2019 but which were then deleted or set to private, Beyala alleged that Chouta and other unspecified individuals made defamatory allegations about her personal life on social media. Chouta received repeated anonymous threats in the months leading up to his arrest, and was attacked outside his home in February 2019 by suspected government agents, the journalist told CPJ at the time.
Vitus told CPJ that he suspected that the harsh charges and denying Chouta bail were in retaliation for his reporting. 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 allegations of abuse by police and a pro-government journalist, Vitus told CPJ. Chouta’s lawyer Tamfu Richard told CPJ that he too believed the charges were retaliation for Chouta’s criticism of the government.
Vitus described Chouta as a “whistleblower” who leaked “several highly confidential official documents” on social media.
Chouta also favorably covered the activities of opposition politician Maurice Kamto, who lost to Biya in what Kamto alleged was a fraudulent presidential election in October 2018 and who faced trial for alleged insurrection, according to news reports.
Chouta was brought to the court of first instance in Yaoundé on June 3, 2019, and returned to on June 10, where he was formally charged and was initially transferred to the Kondengui Central Prison to await trial, the person said, but was then transferred to the Principal Prison on July 26, 2019, after a prison mutiny three days earlier.
Chouta appeared in court before a judge on June 11, 2019, and on July 12 he pleaded guilty to the charges of false news and criminal defamation, but Beyala was not present and the matter was postponed to August 13; that day, the case was postponed yet again to September 10 at the request of the complainant’s lawyer, who was ill, according to the person and a news report.
On September 10, the judge joined Chouta’s case with that of Mispa Ngo Hegam, the founder of the Angels of Paradise school in Douala, whom Beyala alleged also had defamed her, according to the same person and a local news report. Chouta was accused of being Ngo’s accomplice, although the journalist said he did not know the woman, the person with knowledge of the case told CPJ.
The trial was set to begin on October 8, 2019, but the case was instead transferred to an appeals court after Ngo’s lawyer appealed the combining of their two cases, Richard told CPJ. That appeal was dismissed on April 27, 2020, the person familiar with the case told CPJ.
After the appeal was dismissed, Chouta and his co-accused’s case was heard at the Yaoundé Court of First Instance on June 10, 2020.From that date through October 1, the court sat eight times, but the trial judge changed on August 26, and again on October 1, starting the trial afresh each time, according to the person who spoke with CPJ.
A letter dated October 12, 2020, from Chouta’s lawyer, Henri Kouokam, to the president of the court of appeals, which CPJ reviewed, objected to the repeated delays and said they were prejudicial to the journalist’s right to a fair and speedy trial. It suggested that the delays were politically motivated. Chouta’s trial was set for November 5, but was then postponed to November 17; on that day, Beyala’s lawyer requested a postponement to January 3, 2021, which the court granted, according to the person who spoke with CPJ.
In November, the Clooney Foundation, through its Trial Watch program and the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, petitioned the U.N. Working Group on arbitrary detention about Chouta’s prolonged pretrial detention, The petition alleged that his detention was disproportionate and unnecessary, deprived Chouta of his right of freedom of expression, and failed to respect procedural norms governing pretrial detention and a defendant’s right to a fair trial. That petition followed a report published on June 17, 2020, by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, which has monitored Chouta’s case as part of the Trial Watch program, which also alleged that the he was subject to arbitrary detention.
One of Couta’s defense lawyers, Ndjodo Crépin, agreed that the case had been subject to undue delays. “It’s about 16 months that my client Paul has been detained, without any judgment at all,” he told CPJ via messaging app in early October 2020.
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.
CPJ and 80 other organizations wrote a letter to President Paul Biya on April 6, 2020, urging that he free Chouta 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.
Chouta was suspected to have contracted COVID-19 in May 2020 and received hydroxychloroquine from the government, the person familiar with his case said, although he was never tested for the virus. A letter from Chouta’s lawyers to the prosecutor-general’s office on May 11, which CPJ reviewed, noted that Chouta had experienced COVID-19 symptoms for four days, and requested that he receive medical visits and go to a hospital. This was never agreed to, said the person with knowledge of the request. Chouta received a plant-based remedy from a friend and believed it had helped him, said a person with knowledge of his treatment who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.
Chouta had also suffered three bouts of malaria while in detention, most recently in September 2020, and had received medication to treat it, the same person said
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 never responded to CPJ’s April 2020 letter.
CPJ called and messaged Beyala on Facebook and WhatsApp in late September 2020, but did not receive any replies.