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African Journalists Complain About Freedom of Expression on Radio - 2004-01-07

Journalists in West and Central Africa are complaining that authorities are blocking freedom of expression on radio stations.

Music, state news and religious sermons are about all listeners can get on the radio in most countries in the region. In most countries it is either impossible or extremely expensive for radio station owners, to get a license to broadcast independent news.

In a few countries, where laws have been passed to liberalize the radio and television sector, such as Chad and Cameroon, freedom of expression on the radio usually ends when elections are approaching.

A dozen radio stations were simultaneously shut down in opposition strongholds in western Cameroon on December 31. Presidential elections are scheduled for October.

In Chad, the main independent radio station - Radio Liberte - has been shut down several times in recent years after exposing alleged human rights abuses by the government during campaigning for general elections.

The African investigator for the French-based group Reporters without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, is not surprised. He says authorities are afraid of local radio news because, he says, they realize it can have a greater impact than any other source of information in a region where most people can't read or can't afford to buy newspapers.

"There have been private radios and TV stations for only two or three years," he said. "So I think the authorities don't know how to react in front of this new situation and maybe they used some very hard method and a very strong censorship for these radios. And you can [only] be free as a journalist when you speak of non-sensitive issues."

Officials reached in Cameroon and Chad for this report refused to be interviewed.

The main reason given for the closures of the radio stations has been missing paperwork required to get or keep a license.

Journalist Pius Njawe says he was ready to start operating a new station, Radio Freedom, in Cameroon's largest city, Douala, last May. But police prevented his staff from going on the air.

Mr. Njawe says he had applied for a license but received no response, and he says in that situation the law allows him to operate for six months while he waits for the government's answer.

He says he still hopes his radio station can start broadcasting soon, because he says it could ensure a better election.

"Cameroonian people are still waiting for Freedom FM because they believe in what we can say and they believe that with radios like Freedom FM we can help to go through a free, fair and transparent election in Cameroon," said Pius Njawe.

Mr. Njawe says some listeners have access to international broadcasts, but he says people prefer local news presented by local broadcasters.

Internet-based media are also trying to get around government restrictions in the region, but their web sites are only accessible to the elite, who can afford computers and Internet connections.

In the meantime, Mr. Njawe continues to publish a newspaper. He feels frustrated though, saying its scope is limited and that a radio station would help improve the lives of many more people.