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Cameroon Arrests Cable TV Distributors Over ‘Separatist’ Broadcasts

FILE - A poster written in "Camfranglais," a hybrid language mixing French, English and local languages, in seen in Yaounde, Cameroon, Oct. 20, 2010. With demands for equality for English speakers in Cameroon on the rise, the government has arrested several cable TV distributors accusing them of broadcasting programming supportive of what it sees as an anglophone secessionist movement.

Cameroon’s government continues to draw a hard line on separatist groups advocating independence for the country’s two English-speaking zones. Authorities this week arrested several local cable TV distributors, often sole proprietorship enterprises in Cameroon, after they broadcast programming from a pro-secession media outlet.

A Yaounde-based cable TV distributor spent four days in police detention this week for airing images from the Southern Cameroon Broadcasting Corporation.

The promoters of SCBC say the station is headquartered in South Africa. On Tuesday, SCBC released a message from some Cameroonians who identified themselves as being in Washington.

The speakers advocated for independence for the country’s two English-speaking zones. The station also has been calling on schools to remain sealed until detained anglophone leaders are released.

In July, the government banned sharing messages from secessionist groups.

The Yaounde distributor said he was released this week after a warning from Cameroon’s communication minister Issa Tchiroma. Several other detained distributors of SCBC also have been released.

Tchiroma told VOA, if the distributors have been warned that if they continue to relay messages from secessionist groups, all their equipment will be seized and they will answer charges in court.

"This is not a joke," said Tchiroma. "This is the common future of our nation. What is at stake here [is] for us to be Cameroonian here. We cannot joke with this."

English speakers allege marginalization

The crisis began in November when English-speaking lawyers and teachers went on strike demanding reforms. But the movement was quickly overtaken by separatist groups calling for total independence for Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions. Cameroon is officially a bilingual country, but English speakers are a minority. Anglophone activists say English speakers have been marginalized.

Following violent unrest in December, authorities cut all internet access to the affected zones for three months.

At least 30 media organizations either have had their licenses suspended or their offices sealed over their coverage of the strike, and eight journalists are behind bars at the Kondegui prison in the capital. They are accused of broadcasting information that can incite social unrest.

Dennis Nkwemo, president of the National Trade Union of Cameroon Journalists, said the arrests infringe on press freedom.

"We have reminded our colleagues that they should abide by the ethics of our profession. We have engaged our members to act in solidarity. We have asked for the release of our colleagues who were arrested in the southwest and in the northwest and are currently detained," Nkwemo said.

But Peter Essoka, president of the National Communication Council, said the government stands firm.

"A journalist is the watchdog of society and if the watchdog gives wrong signals, I tell you, it will run the country into chaos," Essoka said.

This year, two rights groups, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, each downgraded Cameroon’s rating in their annual global press freedom indexes. Freedom House has assigned Cameroon the status of "not free," while Reporters Without Borders ranks it 130 out of 170 in its country listing.