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Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Cameroon

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Cameroon, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c56697c.html [accessed 22 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In April, two days after Cameroon's only private daily, the French-language Mutations, was suspended and three of its journalists were detained, Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo assured journalists that, "Cameroon's press freedom is real." The Central African country's beleaguered press corps might disagree. Amid widespread domestic and international criticism of Cameroon's dismal human rights record – and ahead of 2004 presidential elections – the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) cracked down on the private press. Authorities censored critical media outlets and harassed local journalists, who complain of frequent threats and intimidation.

Speculation in the press about the country's political future provoked government anger, which in turn caused self-censorship, according to local journalists. Elections are expected in October 2004, although President Paul Biya has hinted he may reschedule them earlier in the year. Biya, who has been in power for 21 years, has not officially announced his candidacy.

In April, a state-owned printing press refused to print the April 14 edition of Mutations. Police later seized the computer disk containing the edition and detained three of the publication's journalists for questioning. The actions stemmed from a report in that issue about the president's succession speculating on the possible political and ethnic turmoil that could occur if Biya retires.

Political debates aired on television and radio – especially ones featuring members of the opposition – provoked the government's ire. In March, Communications Minister Ndongo ordered the private, Yaoundé-based radio station Magic FM to close after speakers criticized Biya's frequent trips abroad, his appointment of officials to multiple posts, and government corruption. The station was allowed to reopen 10 days later, after its directors wrote a letter of apology to the Communications Ministry.

In February, the government suspended two local television networks, RTA and Canal 2, for alleged licensing violations. However, Cameroonian journalists told CPJ they believe that was a pretext, and that the suspensions were related to the political nature of local shows, including debates featuring opposition leaders who criticized Biya's administration.

Throughout 2003, authorities used Cameroon's selective licensing system to close media outlets that threatened the status quo. While the Communications Ministry gave broadcasting licenses to three new private radio stations and four private television channels in September, local journalists say that the ministry's criteria for granting licenses remain opaque, and that many news directors wait months before being allowed to operate. Local journalists say the ministry regularly delays granting licenses to radio stations that they fear will criticize the government.

In May, officials closed and sealed the offices of the new private radio station Freedom FM, which is based in the southwestern port city of Douala. The closure came the day before the station was to begin broadcasting, according to Director Pius Njawé, who also runs the popular, private triweekly Le Messager. Njawé is known for his political commentary, which often targets the ruling party. The Communications Ministry said Freedom FM did not follow the proper procedures in applying for a broadcasting license and therefore would not approve the station's application. However, Njawé maintains that the station followed all necessary procedures.

In November, the Communications Ministry ordered the private, Douala-based radio station Veritas to stop broadcasting, also for allegedly failing to meet licensing requirements. The station, which had been broadcasting religious programming for two weeks, was founded by Catholic Cardinal Christian Tumi. Local journalists told CPJ that the station's closure was linked to the cardinal's frequent criticism of the Biya administration, and that the ruling CPDM fears that the cardinal might run as an opposition candidate in the 2004 presidential election. On December 12, the ministry issued a new license to the station allowing Veritas to provide religious programming for "the social and cultural education of the Catholic community of Douala."

Cameroonian journalists continue to suffer under a harsh press law, which allows authorities to imprison journalists for their work. In August, Rémy Ngono, a former journalist for the private, Yaoundé-based Radio Télévision Siantou (RTS), was imprisoned on criminal defamation charges filed by a businessman he had accused of embezzlement. Local journalists called for the decriminalization of press offenses, although many also criticized Ngono for a lack of professionalism. Ngono hosted "Kondré Chaud," a satirical program on RTS, until fall 2002, when he was fired in response to numerous listener complaints the station had received accusing him of defamation and a lack of professionalism, according to local sources.

Cameroon, which was divided between Britain and France during colonization, gained independence in 1961 as a federation of autonomous Anglophone and Francophone provinces. In May 1972, the country became a "united republic." In recent years, the separatist Southern Cameroon National Council has been pushing for the English-speaking southwestern provinces to secede.

Journalists who delve into the shaky coexistence of French and English speakers in Cameroon face government reprisals. In November, police and customs officials seized the entire print run of the English-language monthly Insight Magazine, which included a cover piece criticizing the country's reunification. The article, partly based on interviews with members of the minority Anglophone population, accused the government of failing to deliver on promises to integrate the English-speaking community politically and economically.


2003 Documented Cases – Cameroon

MARCH 14, 2003
Posted: January 29, 2004

Magic FM
CENSORED

Cameroonian Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo ordered the private, Yaoundé-based radio station Magic FM closed, accusing the broadcaster of "insulting the president and state institutions," disseminating "false information," "calling for sedition," and "disturbing moral standards." The order also called many of Magic FM's interactive broadcasts illegal and unprofessional.

Journalists in Yaoundé said that in the weeks before the station was shuttered, it had broadcast political debates and call-in shows during which speakers criticized President Paul Biya's frequent trips abroad, his appointment of government officials to multiple posts, and government corruption.

After the closure, Magic FM's directors wrote to Minister Ndongo to apologize for the speakers' comments. The letter said that Magic FM would try to avoid broadcasting "offensive" material in the future, according to local journalists. Because of the letter, the Communications Minister allowed the station to reopen, and Magic FM began broadcasting again on March 24.

Magic FM continues to broadcast political debates and call-in shows. The station has received several calls from the Communications Ministry since it reopened warning journalists to tone down their programming content, a source at the outlet told CPJ.

Local sources said the government is cracking down on political dissent ahead of presidential elections scheduled for 2004. Biya, who has ruled Cameroon for more than 20 years, has not announced whether he will run.

APRIL 13, 2003

Haman Mana, Mutations
Alain Blaise Batongué, Mutations
Emmanuel Gustave Samnick, Mutations
HARASSED

Mutations
CENSORED

The Société de presse et d'édition du Cameroun (Sopécam), a state-owned printing press, refused to print the Monday, April 14, edition of the private, Yaoundé-based newspaper Mutations. Police later seized the computer disk containing that edition of the paper and detained two of the printer's employees for questioning.

Local sources said the actions came because that issue of the paper contained a report speculating on the possible political and ethnic turmoil that could ensue in the event of President Paul Biya's retirement. Biya has been president of Cameroon since 1982. He has not yet announced whether he will run for another term in elections scheduled for 2004.

On April 14, police went to the offices of Mutations and detained the newspaper's publisher, Mana. He was released later that night and was told to return to the police station the next day with the journalists responsible for the report. On April 15, Mana, Editor-in-Chief Batongué, and editor Samnick went to the station. The three were detained all day for questioning and were released early that evening, journalists at Mutations said.

The newspaper was unable to publish on April 14 and 15. Mutations hired a private printer in Douala, the commercial capital of Cameroon, to print the April 16 edition, which contained the same report on Biya's possible retirement. Police seized copies of the paper from vendors as soon it appeared on the streets.

Sources at Mutations said the paper was able to publish with the same private printer on April 17 without incident. That day's edition also carried the report.

MAY 23, 2003
Updated: July 18, 2005

Freedom FM
CENSORED, LEGAL ACTION

The day before the private radio station Freedom FM was to begin operating in the southwestern port city of Douala, police officers and security officials closed and sealed the station's studios. Station director Pius Njawé, who also runs the popular, private newspaper Le Messager, had announced that Freedom FM would begin broadcasting May 24.

The closure followed a May 21 order signed by Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo accusing the station of operating illegally. The Communications Ministry said Freedom FM did not follow the proper procedures in applying for a broadcasting license, and therefore would not approve the station's application. However, Njawé maintains that the station followed all necessary procedures.

According to Njawé, after negotiations with the Communications Ministry, the station submitted a new application in June, which was not approved. In September, Njawé sued the Douala police to regain the station's broadcasting equipment, which is still in police custody. On October 14, the Communications Ministry filed a criminal law suit against Njawé for "illegal creation of an audio-visual communications enterprise."

Local journalists told CPJ that authorities wanted to keep Freedom FM off the air because Njawé, who has endured harsh government harassment in the past, is often highly critical of the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement. According to local journalists, the Communications Ministry regularly delays granting authorization to stations they fear will report critically. Local journalists also said that the government was cracking down on political dissent ahead of presidential elections, held in October 2004.

In January 2004, a judge rejected Njawé's suit against the police. Njawé told CPJ he would appeal the decision. In addition, following a worldwide campaign in support of Freedom FM, the Open Society Institute (OSI) lodged a complaint at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. The Commission wrote the Cameroonian government in July 2004, asking that it "take urgent measures to protect Freedom FM's equipment," which Njawé believed would become damaged from neglect. However, no action was publicly taken, according to local journalists.

On July 12, 2005, government officials unsealed Freedom FM's studios. A new communications minister, Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, had signed an agreement in early June with the station's management to re-open the studios after extensive negotiations.

As part of the agreement, the station and the government said they would drop pending litigation over the closing, including Njawé's complaint before the African Commission.

The Communications Ministry also promised to provide Freedom FM with "provisional authorization" to operate. Private radio stations in Cameroon typically function with only provisional authorization because the government doesn't issue them formal licenses. Local journalists said the Communications Ministry's criteria for granting authorization are unclear, leaving radio stations vulnerable to forced closing if they anger authorities.

Njawé told CPJ that the government had sealed off the station while employees were still finishing construction, and, as a result, water damage and neglect had rendered much of the station's equipment unusable. In addition, Free Media Group was not able to retain the reporters it trained in 2003 to work for the station. Njawé said that the project represented an investment of 60 million CFA francs (about US $110,500), some of which might be unrecoverable.

AUGUST 5, 2003
Posted: January 29, 2004

Rémy Ngono, Radio Télévision Siantou
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION

Ngono, a former journalist for the private, Yaoundé-based Radio Télèvision Siantou (RTS), was imprisoned on criminal defamation charges. Ngono hosted "Kondré Chaud," a satirical program on RTS, until fall 2002, when he was fired after the station received numerous listener complaints accusing him of defamation and unprofessionalism, according to local sources.

Ngono was charged with criminal defamation in summer 2002 after he made comments during a July 2002 broadcast about accusations of embezzlement against local businessman Ketch Jean. The dates of Ngono's trial and conviction are unclear. Cameroonian journalists told CPJ he was convicted in absentia and was not immediately arrested. Agence France-Presse reported that Ngono was also fined 200,000 CFA francs (US$360).

Local sources told CPJ that police arrested the journalist on August 5 when he went to gendarmerie headquarters in Yaoundé to file a complaint against a technician who broke his television while trying to fix it. Ngono was driven to Kondengui Central Prison to serve out his sentence.

On September 4, Ngono was released pending appeal of his case.

NOVEMBER 6, 2003
Posted: December 2, 2003

Insight Magazine
CENSORED

Felix Etia, Insight Magazine
HARASSED

Police and customs agents seized the entire run of the fifth issue of Insight Magazine, an English-language weekly, in the port of the southwestern coastal city of Douala. Etia, Insight Magazine's owner and publication director, had brought the issue by boat to Douala from Nigeria, where it is printed to reduce costs.

According to local journalists, the seizure stemmed from the magazine's cover story, which evaluated the effect of the unification of Cameroon's English-speaking and French-speaking provinces in 1961. The article accused the Cameroonian government of failing to deliver on promises to integrate the English-speaking community politically and economically after unification. Instead, the article alleged, Cameroon's English speakers remain marginalized.

After Etia arrived at customs in Douala, police officers asked him for a copy of the magazine, according to Etia. Several hours later, the officers returned and asked him to report to the police station in Douala, where he was questioned about the magazine's content.

NOVEMBER 14, 2003
Posted: January 29, 2004

Veritas
CENSORED

The Communications Ministry ordered the private radio station Veritas, based in the southwestern port city of Douala, to stop broadcasting because it had allegedly failed to meet licensing requirements. The station, which had been broadcasting for two weeks, ceased operations the same day. Catholic Cardinal Christian Tumi, a harsh critic of President Paul Biya's government, founded the station.

According to Cardinal Tumi's colleagues, Veritas had applied for a broadcasting license at the Communications Ministry in 2000 but was never approved. The ministry has given no official reason for not granting the station a license.

Local journalists told CPJ that Veritas' closure was linked to the cardinal's frequent criticism of the government. In addition, the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement fears that the cardinal could run as an opposition candidate in 2004 presidential elections. President Biya has been in power for 21 years.

On December 12, the ministry issued a new license to the station that allows Veritas to provide religious programming for "the social and cultural education of the Catholic community of Douala."

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