There are over a hundred private newspapers and scores of independent audiovisual media groups in Cameroon. But journalists say their working conditions, including their pay, are not good. So they pressured employers and the government to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with bigger salaries and many other benefits. But the agreement is in jeopardy because many media owners have not signed it. From Douala in Cameroon, Ntaryike Divine, Jr., has the story.
A number of factors pushed journalists' unions into a proposed agreement between employers, media workers and the government.
Journalists say many of thehundreds of independent newspapers and scores of private FM radio and TV stations are not financially stable. Some appear during elections and then disappear. Others have uncertain sources of financing – or cannot afford the high cost of newsprint -- and are at risk of closing.
Reporters are often paid poorly or not at all – some volunteer their services. Many of those who do have jobs don't have job security, medical coverage or social security benefits. In this atmosphere, journalists are tempted by bribes from government or business to tailor their stories, giving critics ammunition to accuse them of not giving all the facts. And so news quality – and the public reputation of the news media – has been severely diminished.
Journalists hope these conditions will improve under the "collective convention," or agreement, negotiated in November. It encourages improved working conditions for media workers as well as more government support for media companies. Journalists are hoping forbigger salaries, paid annual vacations, medical coverage and social insurance.
But so far, most employers are reluctant to sign the document.
They say they cannot give raises to journalists or enact other reforms until the government guarantees tax cuts and customs duty exemptions on imported material like newsprint. Those exemptions are guaranteed by international treaties encouraging the free flow of information.
Azore Opio is editor at the English bi-weekly The Post Newspaper. The Ugandan national has lived and worked in Cameroon for 12 years. He says he is very skeptical.
"I have a lot of doubts," he says, "especially considering my experiences, especially with the publishers. I don't think it's going to take off. That [agreement] was just signed. It's going to remain on paper unless the journalists get back together again and see how they're going to jolt the employers into implementing that convention. Otherwise, it's just going to gather dust."
"[The media companies] have money," he continues. "They receive a lot from advertisers and they keep this information away from reporters and pay them peanuts. I think journalists should get together and [do] what Hollywood scriptwriters did last year – cripple the business [with a strike] for a while."
The International Federation of Journalists and other groups have called on the Cameroon government to pressure media owners to sign and to give them the tax cuts and exemptions they seek. Journalists' groups also want the government to distribute subsidies or grants equally to all media.
The groups say these measures would encourage a boom in independent media outlets similar to what has happened in neighboring Nigeria. That country has more than 40 dailies with hundreds of thousands of copies with over 50 pages, many in color. And, they say improved pay and working conditions has convinced many journalists there to refuse bribes by officials in business and government to write favorable stories.