Pius Njawe, editor of the Cameroon thrice-weekly Le Messager and a 1991 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, was released by a presidential pardon on October 12 after serving 10 months in prison for allegedly publishing false information about the health of President Paul Biya.
Njawe was arrested on December 24, 1997, two days after Le Messager reported that Biya had possibly suffered a heart attack while attending the Cameroon Cup soccer finals. Charged with disseminating unsourced news with the intention of affecting the head of state and undermining national security, Njawe was convicted and sentenced on January 13, 1998, to two years in prison and a fine of US$1,000. On April 14, his prison sentence was reduced on appeal to one year, including time served.
During his incarceration, Njawe wrote a column criticizing prison conditions and Cameroon’s legal and political systems. Last April, he participated in a question-and-answer session with U. N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) on African governments’ attempts to control the flow of information. Njawe’s questions were delivered to the meeting in writing by WAN.
Njawe’s captors denied him access to medical care for an eye ailment, brought on by poor conditions the Douala jail. His confinement became the focus of a protest by CPJ, Reporters sans Frontieres, Human Rights Watch, and other international press freedom and human rights groups.
Upon release, Njawe said that he “had not asked for a pardon” and regarded Biya’s decision with indifference. “These 10 months of detention have been an occasion to discover living standards in Cameroonian prisons and the dysfunctioning of justice which, more often than not, causes injustice,” Njawe said. He pledged to return to Le Messager to campaign “for justice to be more just” in Cameroon.
Jesse T. Stone is associate editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists.