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CPJ Calls for Investigation of Cameroon Journalist's Death

The Committee to Protect Journalists wants Cameroon to open a public investigation into the death of an imprisoned newspaper editor.

The managing director of the bimonthly newspaper Cameroon Express, Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota, died Thursday at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde.

The journalist, more commonly known by his nickname "Bibi," died from lack of medical care, according to a prison death certificate. Ngota's wife said he suffered from high blood pressure, which was aggravated by prison conditions.

Ngota was arrested with two other journalists in February for reporting on an alleged corruption case implicating a presidential advisor.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says the Cameroon government was responsible for Ngota's well-being while incarcerated and is calling for a thorough and transparent investigation.

The group's Africa researcher, Mohammed Keita, says Ngota's death may turn out to be a tragic wake-up call for press freedom in Cameroon, where press offenses are still criminalized.

"We have been calling on President Bia to enact urgent press reforms to ensure that the management of public affairs is not such a sensitive topic that journalists who cover these issues or raise questions about, say, the management of public finances get prosecuted or get thrown into prison or even die in the custody of the government," said Keita.

Cameroon's communications minister, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, said the government would investigate Ngota's death.

Tchiroma says the journalist's unfortunate death should not be misinterpreted as a deliberate policy by the Cameroon government to muscle the independent media and obstruct press freedom.

He said Ngota and his colleagues were not detained for press-related offenses, but for faking a signature and being in possession of falsified documents that incriminated a high-profile statesman.

The document in question was dated June 2008 and claimed presidential advisor Laurent Esso had ordered the state-run National Hydrocarbons Corporation to disburse secret payouts of as much as $2.5 million to company managers for the planned purchase of a luxury yacht.

Esso has not publicly commented on the allegations, which were first reported by the press in September 2009.

Ngota and his two colleagues said they received the document from an unnamed source. The journalists faced 10- to 20-year prison sentences and have been under pretrial detention since March 10.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says Cameroon journalists are often subject to harassment, arbitrary arrests, torture and criminal prosecutions.

Keita says the problem of press freedom there is more complex than just decriminalizing libel and other press offenses. He says the press corps lacks unity; regulatory institutions are weak; and many journalists do not receive regular salaries, which Keita says exposes them to intense financial and political pressures.

"You have individuals, or members of the administration who are involved in settling scores with their critics in the press, and they use security forces, they use their authority and they use these libel and criminal laws to essentially imprison journalists who raise questions about their performance," added Keita.

Keita said another journalist, initially arrested with Ngota and his colleagues, has since gone into hiding after being held for a week without charge in February. Upon his release, that journalist said he had been interrogated using torture methods like water-boarding and sleep deprivation.

Cameroon journalist trade unions and associations say they plan to launch peaceful demonstrations to prod the government to investigate Ngota's death.