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Cameroonian Journalists Decry Violence as World Observes Press Freedom Day

FILE - A Cameroonian journalist holds a sign reading "No to the persecution of journalists" during a free speech rally in Yaounde, Cameroon, May 3, 2010.
FILE - A Cameroonian journalist holds a sign reading "No to the persecution of journalists" during a free speech rally in Yaounde, Cameroon, May 3, 2010.

Journalists in Cameroon are calling on the government to end threats against reporters, including illegal detentions, prison time, and killings. Journalists are holding conferences across the country to mark May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. They also are demanding justice for two colleagues killed this year and for at least five reporters currently imprisoned.

Cameroonian journalists say they are increasingly facing oppression, threats, attacks, illegal detentions and the killing of reporters. Journalists blame senior state officials for what they say are increasing media abuses and attempts to silence reporters.

Journalist Samson Ngangeh Websi is a member of the Cameroon Association of English-speaking Journalists, or CAMASEJ. He spoke in Yaounde during a series of conferences organized by CAMASEJ and the International Francophone Press Union, abbreviated as UPF in the French language.

Websi says Cameroonian laws are hostile to the media.

"A journalist can be charged for libel and defamation and sent to prison. Now we have the 2014 law on the fight against terrorism in Cameroon," said Websi. "Many provisions in that law are really scaring journalists, because according to that law, a journalist can be charged for supporting terrorism simply by publishing articles or being in possession of information, which is considered by the government as sensitive."

Conferences urging the government to protect reporters and revise hostile legislation took place in several towns across the country, officials said.

CAMSEJ says reporters Thomas Awah Junior, Tsi Conrad, Mancho Bibixy and Kingsley Njoka are being held at the Yaounde-Kondengui prison for threatening Cameroon's sovereignty. The reporters were accused of collaborating with western separatists, but they say they were simply doing their job as reporters.

Paul Chouta, a reporter critical of the government of Paul Biya, spent two years in prison from 2019 after he was abducted and tortured by unknown armed men in Yaounde.

Samuel Wazizi, who worked for Cillen Music Television, was arrested in 2019 for allegedly supporting anglophone separatists. He was not seen in public for more than a year. In 2020, the military declared that he died in government custody in August 2019.

In January, the mutilated body of Martinez Zogo, a popular radio personality, was found in Yaounde five days after he was abducted by unknown individuals.

Jean-Jacques Ola Bebe, another radio presenter, was found dead outside his home in the capital on February 2, allegedly gunned down by unknown assailants.

Both reporters on their radio programs said that many senior officials wanted to kill them, but they would continue digging deep into corruption involving government ministers.

Since then, journalists have been complaining of death threats and intimidation. Reporters say they want justice for all journalists that have been killed in Cameroon. The reporters say the government always claims to have opened investigations to punish killers and persecutors of journalists, yet findings are never made public.

Cameroon's communication minister, Rene Emmanuel Sadi, said on World Press Freedom Day the government will protect all journalists. He said reporters should avoid excesses and respect the nation’s laws.

Cameroonian journalists also accuse the state-funded National Communication Council, or NCC, of silencing reporters. Reporters say the NCC receives orders from senior officials, especially President Paul Biya, who appoints the council president.

The NCC has sanctioned more than 135 media organs and journalists for what it calls biased reporting over the past 10 years. Requests for the journalists and media organs to be punished are usually from senior officials, including ministers, lawmakers and others who say their rights are abused by reporters.

NCC president Joe Chebongkeng Kalabubse denies the organization is a government instrument used to crack down on the media.

"This institution [NCC] was created by a law, voted by the National Assembly [parliament] of the Republic of Cameroon, which means it is a decision of the people of Cameroon. When a complaint comes up, we listen to all the parties," said Kalabubse. "We have a judicial department who then prepares, either to incriminate or to vindicate, based on the rules that govern the profession and the council."

In its World 2023 Press Freedom index, Reporters Without Borders says Cameroon has one of Africa’s richest media landscapes but is one of the continent’s most dangerous countries for journalists, since they operate in a hostile and precarious environment.

Cameroon has more than 600 newspapers, about 200 radio stations and upwards of 60 TV networks, yet producing independent and critical reporting is still very challenging, according to RSF.