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Critics Accuse Cameroonian Government of Censorship

This year Cameroon has witnessed food riots, political protests and a constitutional amendment allowing President Paul Biya to seek another mandate. The country’s musicians have criticized these developments in their songs, but they say the government is censoring them in a bid to silence detractors. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Ntaryike Divine, Jr. in the country’s economic capital, Douala, says political analysts agree that beginning in 1990, Cameroonians went through a period of increased freedom of expression. That was the year democracy was re-introduced and the government began to pass laws giving people more freedom of speech.

But now critics say Cameroon seems to be returning to the old days, when a one-party government arrested its critics. They say the administration is cracking down on outspoken civil society activists, journalists and musicians.

The state broadcaster, CRTV, is no longer allowed to play songs like “50 Years in Power.” It was released last year by one of Cameroon's popular new musicians, Longue Longue. The song condemns African leaders not willing to relinquish power, even if they’ve served for decades and have plunged their countries into poverty.

Another musician, Reggae artist Joe La Conscience, was jailed for six months for staging a hunger strike at the American Embassy in Yaounde and singing out against the proposed constitutional change.

La Conscience has since been released, but his effort did not succeed -- Parliament still voted to remove presidential term
limits. The amendment will permit President Biya to seek re-election in 2011 – after 26 years in office.

That move, as well as rising food costs, led to protests in which many were killed or jailed. After intense pressure from human rights activists, Mr. Biya pardoned most of the detainees.

But one who remained in prison was one of Cameroon's best-known musicians, the award-winning Lapiro de Mbanga. Mbanga is a supporter of the opposition party, and the authorities accused him of organizing riots in his home area of Mbanga, in the southwest.

His fans say the government persecuted him for releasing a song titled “Constipated Constitution.” The song became a smash hit, but its lyrics questioned the change in Cameroon’s constitution and warned of impending civil strife because of it.

A court has sentenced De Mbanga to three years in prison for allegedly taking part in anti-government riots. He was also fined about $640.000 US in damages. On the streets of Cameroon, many people say the case against the musician was politically motivated.

They say Cameroonians are generally unhappy with their government, and they see no reason why De Mbanga should be singled out for punishment. They want the authorities to release him.

In getting public opinion about Lapiro’s case, one person had this to say:

“Lapiro is a symbol. Cameroonians should not neglect this guy in prison. I don’t want to hear tomorrow that this guy is finished in prison. That would be a disgrace to Cameroonians. This guy is lonely today’ meanwhile, yesterday he was fighting for the people. He should not be lonely today.”

Another had this to say:

“Because of the politics of today, some musicians cannot come out as they were coming out because everybody’s afraid. Lapiro has not done anything bad. So let them release Lapiro to become free like any other Cameroonian. I condemn that.”

And finally this comment:

“Today when I hear that Lapiro is sick in prison, it bothers me very much. That’s not the person we have to neglect in prison.”

De Mbanga and his lawyer are appealing the court’s decision. They say the case is far from over and will have serious implications for freedom of speech in Cameroon.

After rioting occurred in February, President Biya went on state TV and warned about what he called “apprentice sorcerers.” He said they were manipulating the youth in an effort to plunge the country into chaos. Since then the government has made no official statements.

The governor of the Littoral province, where Douala is located, has lifted a ban on all public demonstrations in the province. He said he did it to bring about a return to order.