News anchor and camera operator Samuel Wazizi, whose legal name was Samuel Ajiekha Abuwe, died in government custody in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, on August 17, 2019, according to a statement released on June 5, 2020, by the Cameroonian military, which CPJ reviewed. He had been arrested two weeks earlier in relation to his reporting. The precise circumstances and location of his death, which was not announced until 10 months later, are unknown.
Wazizi, who hosted the “Halla ya Matta” (Shout out your Problem) weekday pidgin show on local broadcaster Chillen Muzik TV, was arrested by police in Buea on August 2, 2019, according to a statement by his employer. The officers “claimed that he was being invited by their boss to get information about a certain ‘pidgin news,’” according to that statement.
Wazizi also worked as a freelancer and collaborated with other journalists on reporting projects, according to local journalists Yannick Fonki and Paul Mua, and Derick Jato, president of the Southwest chapter of the Cameroon Journalists’ Trade Union.
Chillen Muzik TV CEO Etienne Nkwain told CPJ by phone and messaging app that four armed police officers told him on August 2, 2019, that they were looking for Wazizi to “get a certain information for their boss, the commissioner.”
The officers asked Nkwain to call Wazizi, and then the officers summoned Wazizi to meet them at the TV station, Nkwain said. Wazizi arrived soon after, and they left the premises together, Nkwain said, adding that the officers and Wazizi were friendly towards each other.
Nkwain told CPJ that when he did not hear from Wazizi later that day, he became concerned and called the police station, where officers confirmed that they had him in custody.
Wazizi’s friend and former “Halla ya Matta” producer Tah Mai Jarvis, who spoke to the journalist in police detention, told CPJ that Wazizi had specifically asked the officers whether he was under arrest, but they had said he was not, and only wanted him for questioning.
Nkwain said he saw Wazizi at the police station the next morning, and said the journalist told him he did not know why he had been arrested, and asked him to contact his family.
In a video posted to Facebook, Jarvis said authorities accused Wazizi of broadcasting about the armed conflict in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions, said he had allowed his farm to be used as a separatist base, and alleged that he filmed abuses by the Cameroonian military and gave footage to international media organizations. Jarvis said that Wazizi maintained his innocence.
Edward Ewule, the journalist’s lawyer, who spoke to CPJ via phone and messaging app, told CPJ following Wazizi’s arrest that the journalist was accused of “collaborating with separatists” and “spreading separatist information,” but had not been formally charged. Ewule said Wazizi gave a statement without the presence of a lawyer, but that Wazizi was later able to see Ewule and his family while in police custody.
Ewule said his client’s phone was searched and, according to the police, “separatist messages” were found. However, “having such information is part of his journalism job,” the lawyer said.
While at the police station, Wazizi was able to see other colleagues and his brother, with one journalist telling CPJ that Wazizi had told him: “Don’t let me die in here.”
After his arrest, Wazizi was denied bail because police said his case related to potential charges under the anti-terrorism law, Ewule said.
Authorities told Ewule on August 6 that Wazizi would be handed over to the judicial police, which have authority to investigate such charges, he said. However, on August 7, authorities transferred Wazizi to the 21st Motorized Infantry Battalion in Buea, Ewule told CPJ.
After he was transferred to military custody, Wazizi’s friends, family, colleagues, and lawyer had no contact with him or heard any official updates about his case until the military statement issued the following June, which said that Wazizi had died 10 days after being transferred to the military, Ewule said.
That statement, issued by the military’s head of communication, Commander Cyrille Serge Atonfack, claimed the journalist had died of “severe sepsis” and denied allegations he was tortured. The statement alleged that Wazizi was a logistician for “various terrorist groups” operating in Buea and elsewhere in the Fako division.
The statement said that Wazizi was arrested on August 3, rather than August 2, and said that his arrest took place in Ekona, rather than Buea, both in contradiction of his employer, family, friends, and lawyer’s reports from the time. The statement said he was suspected of “having connections with terrorists and complicity in terrorist acts.”
The statement did not cite specific examples of Wazizi’s work that prompted his arrest. Mimi Mefo, a reporter for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle who also runs a news website that covers events in Cameroon, published a report on June 6 stating she believed Wazizi was arrested because he interviewed victims of alleged military abuses in the region.
In May 2019, a program by Wazizi, which was uploaded to Chillen Muzik TV’s YouTube channel, included testimony from a woman who alleged that government soldiers killed her four-month-old daughter. Those allegations were later covered by U.K. newspaper The Guardian. At the time, the Cameroonian government denied that the military had any involvement in the killing, and said the allegations were being spread by separatists.
Mefo wrote that Wazizi also documented an alleged massacre by government soldiers in Ekona, 11 miles from Buea, on Christmas day 2018, and interviewed a survivor.
About a month prior to his arrest, police raided Wazizi’s home and deleted footage he had recorded about the 2018 massacre, Jarvis told CPJ. Jarvis said he had cautioned Wazizi against publishing the footage himself.
A June 2 news report, aired by Douala-based private broadcaster Equinoxe TV, cited an unnamed military source as saying Wazizi had died in custody in Yaoundé, but provided no other details. The following day, Denis Nkwebo, the president of the Cameroon Journalists’ Trade Union, tweeted that the journalist was tortured and had died, also quoting an unnamed military source.
In a meeting in Beau on June 4, 2020, with Southwest Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai, journalists were told that Wazizi had been in good health when he was taken to Yaoundé and that only the central government could tell them what had happened to their colleague, according to news reports.
The June 5 government statement announcing Wazizi’s death claimed that the journalist maintained close contact with his family while in custody, including from his hospital death bed, that his family had been informed immediately after his death, and that his body was at the military mortuary in Ekounou, but the family had not undertaken any steps for funeral arrangements.
Wazizi’s sister-in-law, Metete Joan Njang, denied this and told CPJ in a phone call that the first time the family became aware of the journalist’s death was in the Equinoxe TV report. Wazizi’s elder brother, Harry Abuwe, said the same during a press conference at his home on June 5, after the ministry released the statement on Wazizi’s death.
Ewule told CPJ he filed a habeas corpus application in the Fako Division of the High Court in Buea on August 13, 2019, to force authorities to either produce Wazizi in court and justify his detention, or order the journalist’s release. In the application, which CPJ reviewed, Ewule said Wazizi denied all the allegations and “believed he was being detained in connection with his critical views he expressed during the pidgin English news program on CMTV.”
In September 2019, the president of the Cameroon Community Media Network, Reverend Geraldine Fobang, told CPJ that she and a group of journalists tried to visit Wazizi at the 21st Motorized Infantry Battalion in Buea, but they were told that the journalist had been transferred to Yaoundé’s Kondengui Prison.
The president of Fako High Court, Mbonge Wilson, on November 5, 2019, dismissed the habeas corpus application on technical grounds, according to Ewule and news reports.
A second habeas corpus application was launched that month and dragged through the courts with Wazizi’s whereabouts and state of health remaining unknown, according to a preliminary report by the American Bar Association, which monitored the proceedings through its Justice Defenders Program.
On June 9, 2020, four days after the official military statement that Wazizi had died, Judge Mbonge Wilson said the court had taken judicial notice of the military’s statement and noted that at the time the second application was filed on November 5, 2019, Wazizi was no longer within the jurisdiction of the court, according to another of Wazizi’s lawyers, Emmanuel Nkea.
Wilson held that the court lacked jurisdiction and dismissed the application, Nkea said, adding that Wazizi’s lawyers filed an appeal and would also request that a commission of inquiry be established.
CPJ has repeatedly called, emailed, and sent text messages to the office of Prime Minister Joseph Ngute, Minister of Communications Rene Sadi, his adviser Charles Manda, Deputy Minister of Justice Jean de Dieu Momo, and police spokesperson Joyce Ndgem, but did not receive any responses.
On June 5, 2020, after meeting President Paul Biya, French Ambassador to Cameroon Christophe Guilhou told journalists he had raised the matter of Wazizi’s death and that Biya had promised to investigate.