Explainer: In Cameroon, journalists can’t breathe as obnoxious laws stifle press freedom
By Ndi Eugene Ndi
Journalists in Sierra Leone are now heaving sighs of relief after the repeal – following a gruelling 55-year struggle – of a law which served as a tool used by authorities to curtail press freedom.
On October 28, President Julius Maada Bio signed a decree revising the country’s 1965 Public Order Act, which effectively removes measures that criminalised publications deemed libellous or seditious. The promulgation of the law followed earlier scrutiny by parliament.
Press freedom watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described the move as “a welcome step towards improving conditions for press freedom in the country”.
Last year, Liberia moved in the same direction with President George Weah saying the reforms were adherence to international legal instruments to which the country is a signatory, and which demand that African countries abolish inflammatory media and other related laws. While Sierra Leone and Liberia have made the list of African countries where libel or slander is a civil offence, and not a criminal offence, journalists in Cameroon are still, in effect, caught up in a state-supported chokehold.
The country has seen a spike in arbitrary arrests and detentions, harassments and other forms of attacks on journalists for their work. Ahmed Abba, Radio France Internationale’s Hausa-language correspondent, who was accused of terrorism, spent 29 months in detention before he was released in 2017 and forced to go on exile.
Journalist, Samuel Wazizi, whose legal name was Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, died in military custody in Yaounde in August 2019, but the military made his death public only on June 5, 2020, following intense pressure. He was arrested in a township in the conflict-ridden Southwest region of the country and accused of having links with armed separatists fighting since 2017 to create an independent Anglophone state they would call ‘Ambazonia’. The government has labelled the armed separatists as “terrorists”.
Wazizi was the second journalist to have died in custody in the country in the last 15 years. In 2010, journalist, Bibi Ngota, died in a similar way while in government custody, according to CPJ.
At least six other journalists in the country, including Kingsley Fumunyuy Njoka, Thomas Awah Junior and Paul Tchouta are in jail.
Shrinking press freedom
Jude Viban, National President of the Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists (CAMASEJ), says he receives complaints daily from members about harassment, threats and intimidation by the power wielders.
“Journalism as a whole and journalists across the world have the same problems of intimidation, threats and attacks because they work on sensitive issues. But in Cameroon, it is accentuated and more complex,” says Viban. He blames the situation on laws which give little or no protection to media professionals.
“What is happening is that individuals are a threat because if you get to the authorities who are supposed to be investigated, they will, because of their interest, stall the case or make the case disappear or you are not just listened to. The blame is on you when you come complaining. The authorities already tag you as the one who did something wrong. That impunity does exist, and we must admit it does,” he explained.
Yerima Kini Nsom, Yaounde Bureau Chief of the English language bi-weekly, The Post newspaper, likens journalists in Cameroon to endangered species.
“Journalists in Cameroon are born free, but everywhere they are in chains. We still have laws that tighten the lace of control around the neck of every journalist in the country,” says Kini.
Although the preamble to Cameroon’s 1996 constitution guarantees both freedom of expression and of the press, libel and slander remain both civil and criminal offences. A guilty verdict can mean a prison term of up to six months and/or a hefty fine.
According to Kini, the criminalisation of press offences has negatively affected the quality of journalism in the country, because it causes journalists to exercise self-censorship.
Media scholars, journalism trainers and lawyers in the country also agree that current laws do not protect media practitioners.
Eugene Nforngwa, Media and Development Researcher at Yaounde-based African Knowledge and Policy Centre (AKPC), argues that journalists do not enjoy any form of protection under the current Cameroonian laws.
“The laws in Cameroon are written to check the media and check media excesses rather than to promote the media and freedom of expression. I think we should have a law that is intended to promote freedom of expression and freedom of the media and tries to prevent any efforts by other stakeholders from infringing on these freedoms. This is the only approach that can guarantee that journalists are able to do their work well,” says Nforngwa.
Arrey Collins Ojong of Arrey & Associates Law Office, a lawyer who offers pro bono defence to journalists and other vulnerable persons, says he is profoundly alarmed about the current state of the media and journalists in Cameroon because available legislation is solely punitive.
Apart from the constitution and a few ratified conventions, which are hardly ever applied, authorities have done little to nothing to put in place legislation that protects free speech, press freedom and digital rights for citizens and journalists, Arrey underscored.
“For instance, the Cameroonian Penal Code still convicts individuals found guilty of defamation under its section 305 with an imprisonment of from six days to six months and with fine of from FCFA 5,000 to FCFA 2 million,” Arrey explained, citing it as part of laws that hinder press freedom in Cameroon.
The human rights lawyer says he was motivated to defend pressmen when he saw how journalists were continuously being molested, beaten and detained without due course, simply because they were struggling to do their job.
“I witnessed an extremely risky atmosphere for journalists [in Cameroon] who remained the sole stakeholders to report and inform the common man on the day-to-day issues that directly touch on the lives and future of the people,” said Arrey, who is also National Vice President of Cameroon Humanitarian Lawyers Without Borders (known in French as Avocats Sans Frontières Humanitaires Du Cameroon).
“I was motivated to believe even journalists admired so much were an endangered species and required protection, thereby protecting free speech and the only source of this protection would be the law,” Arrey explained.
Another issue which further compounds the situation of the Cameroonian journalist is the lack of access to official sources of information. The country lacks a Freedom of Information Act which would compel official sources to disclose public information. This, according to Kini, forces journalists to resort to secondary sources which are sometimes not trustworthy.
“You can write a faulty story because the sources that are there are not ready to talk to you and you rely on secondary sources. For instance, you cannot voluntarily go to the Presidency or the Prime Minister’s office to verify a particular issue of public interest,” Kini, who has practised journalism since the early 90s, explained.
He went on: “We have had situations in this country where when a journalist goes to a minister who is handling an issue that the public needs to know, the minister says he needs clearance from the Prime Minister, and then the Prime Minister’s Office will say it needs clearance from the presidency. So the story dies if you don’t rely on secondary sources”.
As if to confirm the situation, when this reporter approached a director in the Ministry of Communication for comments, he declined on grounds that he needed clearance from the Minister. At the time of publishing this report, the Communication Minister was yet to reply to an interview questionnaire submitted to him at his request.
The unwritten but scrupulously respected sealed lip policy of the government, according to the president of the English-speaking journalists’ guild, only fuels citizens’ mistrust in authorities as it allows misinformation to flourish.
Despite the fact that Cameroon has ratified both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which provide protections for journalists and their sources, the Yaounde regime seems to be in no hurry to give journalists the rights they deserve.
Arrey says it is regrettable that the applicability of national and international legal instruments that guarantee the rights and freedoms of journalists and other citizens “remains elusive”.
Respect for press freedom has been declining for years in Cameroon and deteriorated more in the wake of the Boko Haram insurgency and the armed conflict in the Anglophone regions, with journalists exposed to a high risk of threats and arbitrary arrest, according to independent monitors like CPJ and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Controversial anti-terrorism law
In an apparent move to further muzzle the press, the government went on to enact a controversial law that directly influences the functioning of journalism and limits reporting especially on human rights violations in the country.
Leaning on the controversial 2014 anti-terrorism law, Yaounde can label journalists, opinion leaders, activists and government critics as “terrorists” and prosecute them in military courts.
“Under the context of this particular law the government enjoys the exclusive monopoly to define the term terrorism,” says Arrey.
“Individuals and journalists even within the digital and physical space, risk jail terms of up to 20 years regarding an opinion or expression that the government deems might affect public order which they interpret as acts of terrorism which fall within the exclusive competence of military tribunals for adjudication purposes,” he adds.
Arrey explains that the ambiguous law also gives law enforcement officers the leverage to continue restricting press freedom by arresting, detaining, physically abusing and harassing journalists and anyone suspected of holding an opinion and information they are empowered by the said legislation to interpret as acts of terrorism.
“The suppression of freedom of expression in the country has even gone to an extent where security forces in the areas affected by ongoing crisis [like the Boko Haram in the Far North and armed separatist conflict in Anglophone regions] would order an individual in public to hand over his or her mobile phone for examination without any judicial order, thereby violating their privacy, yet no cause for alarm,” the founder of the Limbe-based Arrey & Associates Law Office said.
There have been cases where journalists who are covering riot protests in the country are treated in the same way as protesters and charged/tried under provisions of the said law and given punishments.
At least eight journalists including Tah Mai Javis of My Media Prime TV in Douala and his cameraman, Tebong Christian, Equinoxe TV cameraman, Rodrigue Ngassi, French language daily newspaper, La Nouvelle Expression, reporter, Lindovic Ndjio, and Radio France Internationale correspondent for Cameroon, Polycarpe Essomba, were arrested and detained in different police stations in the political capital Yaounde and economic capital Douala last September while covering an anti-Biya protests. The protest was called by opposition leader and 2018 presidential candidate, Prof Maurice Kamto of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC). The journalists were accused of being supporters of the opposition leader, who has been a thorn in the flesh of the Biya regime since the 2018 presidential vote; which he claims he won but was robbed of his victory by incumbent Biya.
“Some of the provisions of the [anti-terrorism] law are very obnoxious. For instance, it suffices for you as a journalist to say Maurice Kamto [opposition leader] or other civil society leaders have a right to protest for you to be accused of supporting terrorism,” says Kini.
No way to report
Rights groups have indicted the military combatting Boko Haram in the north and in the crackdown on armed separatist fighters pushing for the secession and independence of the country’s two English-speaking regions.
Out of fear of being persecuted and/or prosecuted as well as the inability to gain access to official sources of information, journalists have underreported the security forces’ excesses and human rights violations in these areas.
“You see in more recent years that curfews and other restrictions on the general public do apply to journalists who are supposed to continue to be informing the population, even if it is about how those curfews and restrictions are successful,” Nforngwa explains, saying this makes the practice tougher.
In response to heavy criticisms for the use of obnoxious laws to muzzle the press, authorities have, in the past, touted the number of private media outlets in the country as proof that the press is free. According to media reports, the government has registered over 600 newspapers, most of which are community and regional papers and are published only occasionally.
Several television and radio stations too operate without a licence. Critics say this policy of delaying to issue definite licences and “administrative tolerance” also retains media in the asphyxiating grip of government because they can be closed whenever their reporting is found to be unsavoury.
Kini and Viban argue, however, that press freedom cannot be measured only by the number of private media outlets.
“It is not because you have a thousand newspapers that you think the press is free. When we have these thousands of newspapers with doubtful publishers and editors, it therefore means that they can be easily manipulated,” says Viban.
“It is important to have newspapers that are independent, credible and that can help the population to make informed choices. Having many media organs that are not helping to inform deepens mistrust in government,” he adds.
To Kini, projecting the number of private media organs in the country as a yardstick for press freedom is a “very whimsical and misleading” narrative.
“Most of the so-called newspapers are not vibrant enterprises. It is a very chaotic situation because some of the so-called publishers you see are just little birds dancing in the middle of the road where the real drummers are in government. There are many newspapers that are created by ministers,” Kini said, adding “just wait for the period of campaigns and you see those newspapers coming out like dogs, to attack the adversaries and/or perceived and real enemies of their masters”.
Cameroon has a history of detaining journalists incommunicado, according to CPJ and RSF. The country’s press freedom ranking worsened this year. The central African country is ranked 134th out of 180 countries – where one is the freest, according to RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The score is three places lower than its 2019 position of 131. The country has also featured among top on CPJ’s list of jailers of journalists in Africa in the last half-decade years, and is rated “Not Free” by Freedom House.
For the current situation of journalists in the country to be better, Nforngwa says there is the need to reform the laws, and the starting point is to have a clear understanding of what the law is intended to do.
“I think we should have a law that is intended to promote freedom of expression and freedom of the media and tries to prevent any efforts by other stakeholders from infringing on this freedom. This is the only approach that can guarantee that journalists are able to do their work well,” the researcher, who is also a journalism trainer, proposed.
However, previous attempts at engineering media law reforms in the country have not been successful.
The government organised what it called the National Communication Forum in Yaounde in 2012 on the stakes and challenges of the media in the country but its resolutions have since remained in the drawers of authorities in the capital.
The scientific committee of the conference organised by the country’s Ministry of Communication said among other things in a document then that the forum had agreed that further reflection should be made, in order to get a substitute to imprisonment against common law offences perpetrated by media organs.
Charlie Ndi Chia, President of the Cameroon Union of Journalists (CUJ) and member of the country’s media regulator, the National Communication Council (NCC), who participated in the deliberations at the three-day conference, together with his secretary-general and NCC colleague, Christophe Bobiokono says the forum, like many others before it, might have been railroaded and taken advantage of by interests surreptitiously opposed to credible media in Cameroon.
“I personally think that completely deregulating the Cameroonian media crowded as it were, by overly gullible practitioners would be a wise step to adopt. Similarly, decriminalising offences committed by pressmen in the line of duty is a pretty dicey venture,” says Ndi Chia.
The CUJ president said further that given the queer value system that drives the average Cameroonian media practitioner, it is safer to hang on to the status quo, acknowledging it is debatable, but that it would take very open minds to put the cards on the table and thrash the topic.
Bobiokono recalls that one of the resolutions of the forum was the creation of a national order of journalists which was going to do auto-regulation but the government has been reluctant to implement the resolutions.
“The national order of journalists was going to act like a regulatory body like it is the case with medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, pharmacists,…You must belong to the order and abide by its rules and it is easy to control and also take decisions,” he said.
No political will
Both Ndi Chia and Bobiokono do not see any government will to have a free and independent media in the country.
“Those who run the government are certainly aware of the virtues of a free press. But for parochial interests, I am pretty sure that many of those in government would rather have manipulable lapdogs in newsrooms,” Ndi Chia said.
While the repeal of the media law in Sierra Leone was a fulfilment of a promise President Maada Bio made on the campaign trail prior to his 2018 election, politicians in Cameroon seem not to be concerned about the obnoxious laws in the country. None of the candidates at the 2018 presidential election—including a journalist turned opposition leader, Cabral Libii, during campaigns ahead of the vote, made mention of a repeal of law such as the 2014 anti-terrorism law or putting in place of a Freedom Of Information Act.
President Paul Biya, who once declared he wants to be remembered as one who brought democracy and press freedom in Cameroon, won a seventh term during the October 7, 2018 vote, extending his grip on the country he has ruled with a tight fist since November 1982.
Pro-democracy advocates fear a free and independent media may be a far-fetched dream for Cameroon as long-serving rulers like Biya will always try to control the narrative and manipulate their own version of reality—a scheme that cannot be achieved with a free and independent media.
Jeffrey Smith, Founding Director of Vanguard Africa, a Washington DC-based pro-democracy advocacy group, says truth, facts and objectivity are a dictator’s worst enemy while a free media and an informed citizenry represent their kryptonite.
“This is why leaders like Paul Biya, who have failed their citizens for generations, need to silence or quite literally kill journalists. It’s because they expose him for the supreme failure that he is,” Smith said.
“It is evident that Paul Biya, and the ruling regime in Cameroon, have no intention of ensuring an open media or political space in the country. Their very survival, in fact, depends on restricting these spaces. This should not, however, be seen as a sign of strength for the regime. It is quite the opposite. It is the ultimate sign of their growing weakness. And they should be rightly called out for it and also held accountable,” the executive director of Vanguard Africa opined.
To Smith, for Cameroon to advance towards democracy – real democracy, there is a need for a change in leadership at the very top.
“Cameroonian citizens are clearly demanding change. This has been evident with the growing protests and dissent we have seen throughout the country. It was also evident during the last elections, which were thoroughly rigged in Biya’s favour,” Smith said. He added that “Paul Biya has been in power longer than most Cameroonian citizens have been alive. He is a retrograde dictator who represents the worst of Africa’s past, not the future that Cameroonians are yearning for and deserving of”.
Biya, 87, first became president on November 6, 1982 when a large number of the country’s nearly 27 million citizens were not yet born. He inherited a country of 9.2 million people from Ahmadou Ahidjo, the first president.
Cameroonian-born international governance, human rights, and democracy advocate, Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, agrees that Cameroon’s state of democracy is worse now than it was three decades ago.
The Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and West Africa at Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) says there is much to fix for Cameroon to actually be referred to as democracy.
“Credible independent organisations such as Freedom House consider Cameroon does not meet the definition of democracy and so I couldn’t rate it on that scale. The country’s overall state of democracy scorings are worse now than they were three decades ago,” Fomunyoh said.
“You can’t be the oldest president in the world—soon turning 88—the longest-serving with 38 years at the helm and have that weigh negatively on a country facing multiple challenges,” opined Fomunyoh who is author of the book, The Cameroon of Tomorrow—series of thoughts, messages, criticisms and proposals on the democratic evolution of the country.
This publication has been written as part of the CHARM 2020 Media Fellowship and CHARM-Africa’s ongoing work to protect and expand the space for civil society organisations and human rights defenders, as well as nurture and enhance the effectiveness of independent media and journalism in the region. It is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)