President Paul Biya waged an unrelenting assault on the media during the run-up to the second round of multi-party national elections in October, which followed highly flawed spring legislative elections. Repeated violations of the right to freedom of expression undermined the rocky process of democratic transition.

The first half of the year brought continuing harassment of the print media, as the government banned and seized newspapers. Police frequently attacked or harassed vendors selling independent papers, and arrested people reading banned publications. Of 400 registered newspapers, only about 30 published at the start of 1997, and fewer than 10 on a regular schedule. Although constitutional amendments ratified in January 1996 provide for an independent judiciary, corruption and inefficiency in the courts remain serious problems, and the judiciary is subject to political influence. Many print journalists continue to be prosecuted and sentenced to jail for criticizing the government, and some are physically attacked.

While some legal restraints on press freedom-such as pre-publication censorship-have been eased since the country joined the British Commonwealth in November 1995, the government has added some repressive press laws to the books. Criminal libel and insult laws are favorite weapons against the independent press, and frequent banning orders and prohibitive fines push newspapers toward acute financial difficulty and even insolvency.

The state maintains its firm grip on broadcasting. Radio, which reaches a far wider audience than the print media, is Cameroon's most important medium because of high illiteracy rates and the vicissitudes of newspaper distribution outside major urban centers. Taking advantage of a loophole in the Law on Mass Communications allowing for the establishment of independent broadcast media without as yet establishing regulations for licensing them, five community radio stations began broadcasting in remote areas of the country. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the state monopoly on the broadcast media will be surrendered in the coming year.

This 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.