YAOUNDE - Media in Cameroon have accused the country's National Communication Council (NCC) of censorship ahead of October’s presidential election after it issued a stern warning accusing the media of propagating hate language that can deepen fighting in the central African state.
One supposed offenders - Amplitude FM, a radio station in Cameroon's capital Yaounde, which told potential voters to be ready for carnage that will spread all over the central African state should its president, Paul Biya, be reelected October 7. The broadcaster says that after 36 years as head of state, Biya should peacefully hand over power - and if he doesn’t - be forced to do so.
The radio station’s program in question is called Polimetre. Less than a month ago, its host, Dieudonne Mbah, anchored another political program called Polifocus that was suspended by Cameroon's NCC, the country's media regulator, for spreading hate language. He simply changed the name of the program.
Mbah says his program, like 12 others, was targeted because it takes a strong stance against Biya's long stay in power. He says if he should be punished for asking people to vote for change, so, too, should other journalists for asking potential voters to take a tougher stand against those who oppose Biya.
"Some media houses like the state-run CRTV, television stations which are owned or backed by government ministers, seem untouched even when their journalists are known to have broken the same rules which other journalists and other media organs have been punished for, but they go unpunished. So I think that the NCC still needs to rise to that occasion where they can discipline any media houses irrespective of the name or irrespective of who owns it," Mbah said.
Jude Kiven, president of the Yaounde chapter of the Association of English-Speaking Journalists, says politicians have manipulated many journalists who now no longer practice their profession, but take sides with some candidates. Jude says many producers of programs suspended by the NCC simply change their names or the names of the media organ.
"It is important for the National Communication Council to sanction anyone or any media house that is guilty of hate speech, yet the National Communication Council can take decisions and sanctions that can be ignored by the journalist or the media house. Government did not give the National Communication Council enough powers to be able to enforce their decisions," Kiven said.
Last month, a court in Yaounde asked the president of the NCC, Peter Essoka, to pay a fine of $30,000 as damages to Vision 4, a TV station in Cameroon. Essoka had suspended some of the station's programs, saying they could be compared with those of Radio Mille-Collines, the media outlet that was at the heart of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Essoka acted after journalists from from Vision 4 said all English speakers in the bilingual country where French also is an official language should be held responsible and punished for the crisis rocking the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions.
Private media outlets in Cameroon also defied a ban on political programs imposed by the National Communication Council, which insisted political debates may cause conflict ahead of senatorial elections on March 25.
In 2017, the NCC suspended 35 journalists and media outlets, accusing them of failing to respect professional norms and ethics. Some of those punished had criticized the government's handling of the crisis in the English-speaking regions. Others criticized senior state functionaries about the use of public funds.
"It has been so insulting, abusive; it is becoming rampant, developing into a hate society,” Essoka said. “We cannot permit that some people destroy the state of the nation under the pretext that they are free. Freedom or liberty has its limits, and we shall insist on that limit. Part of the crisis in our country is based on the things that people say."
Essoka said the NCC is committed to cleaning up the media landscape in Cameroon, but it doesn't not have a way to enforce decisions and must rely on administrative and security officials who very often refuse to collaborate.
Essoka said he regrets that media rights group Reporters Without Borders thinks the NCC is taking a tougher line toward journalists and media.
Cameroon was ranked 126 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
Cameroon has more than 500 newspapers and 100 radio and TV stations which express divergent views about the presidential election.