Cameroonian journalist Wawa Jackson Nfor was arrested in May 2018, and has been held in pretrial detention while facing charges of publishing secessionist information. He could face up to life in prison if convicted.
Nfor worked for local broadcaster Abakwa FM before starting his own Facebook and text message-based news service, Wawanews, and contributing to local news websites such as Hilltopnews, according to a person familiar with his case who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
Nfor’s reporting focused on the Donga-Mantung area of the English-speaking Northwest region and the local Ambazonian separatist movement, which seeks to secede from the majority French-speaking Cameroon, according to CPJ’s review of his writing.
National gendarmerie officers arrested Nfor on May 15, 2018, while he was returning to Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region, after a visit to his home village of Tabenken, according to the person familiar with details of his case.
He was detained at the gendarmerie brigade in Nkambe, the capital of Donga-Mantung, and interrogated by Patrick Engola, the district officer for Nkambe central district, who accused the journalist of publishing unfavorable news about his administration, the person told CPJ. Engola cited a 2017 news article about him seizing satellite dishes from residents who were watching the separatist satellite broadcaster SCBC TV, which operates from exile, the person said.
In an October 15, 2019, phone call with CPJ, Engola denied any knowledge of the 2017 article or of Nfor’s case, saying he was not responsible for such matters and never interrogated Nfor,
After pressure on authorities from the journalist’s lawyer, Ngwang Shey, Nfor appeared before the chief prosecutor in Nkambe on May 18, 2018, and before the examining magistrate that same day, the person said. The journalist was told that he faced charges of publishing secessionist information and was also accused of threatening the life of prominent local ruling party politician and businessman Ngala Gerard, the person told CPJ.
Shey told CPJ that the secessionist information charge was a result of his client’s journalism.
After the hearings on May 18, Nfor was sent to Nkambe Principal Prison pending further investigation, the person said. After four adjournments, Nfor appeared before the examining magistrate on June 21, 2018, where the charge of threatening Gerard’s life was dropped and the charge about publishing secessionist information was forwarded for trial, the person with knowledge of the case told CPJ.
The journalist was formally arraigned and pleaded not guilty before the high court in Nkambe on August 30, 2018, Shey told CPJ.
In reply to a September 2019 request for comment via messaging app, Gerard told CPJ that he knows Nfor well and did not remember filing a complaint against him. He said, “his being in jail is in no way related to me.”
Nfor’s case continued to be face delays because the trial judge was injured in a shooting incident while traveling from Bamenda to Nkambe, Shey said. The escalating conflict between security forces and separatists, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, derailed the functioning of the court for much of 2019 and 2020, Shey said.
An August 11, 2020, meeting of the Higher Judicial Council chaired by President Paul Biya resulted in new judicial appointments and the transfer of some judges, according to local news reports. Shey told CPJ that as a result of the judicial changes, Nfor’s trial would start anew at the High Court Donga-Mantung Judicial Division, and would be presided by Justice Akuma Nkeng Epse Fonkem.
The court was scheduled to meet on September 24 for identification and possible arraignment, but was adjourned to September 29 because the prosecutor was absent, said Shey. Nfor was not present, as the court failed to issue a production warrant for prison authorities to present him in court, said the person with knowledge of the case. Nfor was present on September 29 for the purpose of identification and his case was postponed to October 13, where he was re-arraigned and pleaded not guilty, Shey said.
The trial was adjourned to October 27; at that hearing, the prosecution’s first witness failed to arrive, and the trial was postponed to November 17, a person familiar with the case told CPJ. On that day, the prosecution asked for another postponement to December 1, which the judge granted, said the person. On December 1, that hearing was postponed to December 11 due to a lawyers’ strike, the person said.
If found guilty, the journalist faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, the lawyer said.
CPJ and 80 other organizations wrote a letter to President Paul Biya on April 6, 2020, urging that he free Nfor 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.
The person who spoke to CPJ anonymously said that Nfor was “rubbed in his urine” and also threatened with death by guards while he was detained at the Gendarmerie Brigade in Nkambe. In August 2020, CPJ petitioned the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention over Nfor’s detention and alleged mistreatment by guards who allegedly beat, punched, and kicked him.
A person with knowledge of prison conditions in Nkambe, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, described the conditions as “deplorable,” especially in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying prisoners were “left in a cell with no ventilation, no toilets; poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding. There are no serious measures against COVID-19. There is practically no other thing apart from face masks given by the government.”
Communication Minister Rene Sadi, who is also a government spokesperson, did not respond to a text message 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 replied to CPJ’s April 2020 letter.