Issa Tchiroma Bakary, Communication Minister and Government spokesman, made some untrue statements at a press conference in Yaounde on May 2, eve of World Press Freedom Day. He also claimed in a debate program, (Press Hour) on national TV, that Cameroon is top on Africa press freedom index and also suggested that the country could be number one in the world. Minister Tchiroma also claimed that there is no journalist in prison in Cameroon, arrested for “regular” practice of his profession.
The minister controversially argues Cameroon is at war against Boko Haram, and journalists should know in times of war, truth is the first casualty.
Contrary to his utterances suggesting the pressmen in Cameroon should celebrate freedom of expression, journalists in Buea, the chief town of the South West region took to the streets on May 3 to tell a different story. They complained about arbitrary arrests, detentions, intimidation and imprisonment of their colleague currently in jail. All dressed in black, they marched with placards with diverse inscriptions. Some of them read ‘free the press’, ‘stop arresting us’, journalism is not a crime’ ‘free our colleagues’, ‘free Amos Fofung’ Free Atia Tilarious’.
Some of the journalists cited on the placards such as Amos Fofung and Atia Tilarious alongside eight other reporters have been in detention for several months. The afore cited reporters of The Guardian Post daily and The Sun weekly newspapers respectively, were arrested in the South West region about three months ago. They are yet to be officially charged in court. According to the international journalists’ rights NGO, Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, the duo were arrested in relation to the practice of their journalism profession.
Eight journalists in detention
Besides Atia and Fofung, the CPJ, in a March 1, 2017 letter to Cameroon’s Communication Minister, signed by Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa Programme Coordinator, said Thomas Awah Junior of Aghem Messenger Magazine, Mofor Ndong of Voice of the Voiceless newspaper, Hans Achumba of Jakiri Community Radio, Tim Finnian of Life Time newspaper, Jean Claude Agbortem of Camer Veritas online magazine, and Medjo Lewis of La Détente Libre newspaper are detained for their work as journalists.
Amos Fofung and Atia Tilarious who are detained in the maximum security prison in Yaounde, told Journal du Cameroun that they have not been told their crime. Their lawyer, Barrister Christopher Ndong, also told this reporter that ‘it appears those who are keeping those boys in prison are waiting for orders from above (apparently ministers or presidency)”.
Minister Tchiroma, during the May 2 news conference, further claimed that if there is any journalist in prison, he must have been held in “accordance with the provisions of the law.”
But Barrister Christopher Ndong disagrees. “According to principles and guidelines for a fair trial and legal assistance outlined in the African Charter on Human and People’s rights, civilians are not to be tried in military courts. The only purpose of the military court would be to determine offences of a purely military nature, committed by military personnel. Military courts should not in any circumstances whatsoever have jurisdiction over civilians. But these boys have been brought to the military tribunal twice.”
The counsel of the detained journalist also pointed out that the arrest are detention of the journalists were carried out in violation of the criminal procedural code. “They were arrested without a warrant. They have been taken hundreds of miles away from the appropriate jurisdiction. They will be tried under the Civil Law instead of the Common Law. These are violations of the law! Does Tchiroma even know what he is talking about?” he questioned rhetorically.
Journal du Cameroun equally visited Tim Finian of Life Time newspaper in the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde after the minister’s claims. He said he was shocked to learn the minister would say journalists are not detained because of their works.
“Gendarmerie officers told me I wrote a sensitive article which could spark a rebellion. Whereas someone else reported in our newspaper that soldiers killed some suspects on transit from Bamenda to Yaounde and threw them off a military airplane. We wrote a corrigendum for the story as the law requires. I have my employment letter which shows I am not the owner of the newspaper. This is the fourth month I am spending behind bars simply because I am editor. There is no justification. I am due to appear at the military tribunal on May 10, 2017 for a second time” he said.
Ahmed Baba, Cameroon correspondent for the Hausa service of French international radio, RFI, was last week slammed a 10-year jail term and fined 55 million FCFA by the Yaounde Military Tribunal. He was accused of “non-denociation of terrorism and laundering of proceeds from terrorism. Transparency International, and Africa Rising have condemned his trial and pointed out several irregularities in court proceedings.
Randy Joe, BBC correspondent was arrested recently for taking pictures at the Military Tribunal in Yaounde. His lawyer told this reporter last week that ‘if I did not intervene immediately, he would have still been detained- and who knows the charges that would have been levied against him”.
Cameroon ranked 130th on World Press Freedom Index
The National Communication Council which has the power to advice and sanction media organs, has, in recent years, come under scathing attacks for allegedly gaging the press. The most recent sanctions of the media watchdog were made public last week.
Several newspapers and journalists were suspended for periods ranging between three and six months based on complaints filed by influential personalities and institutions in the country such as ace footballer Samuel Eto’o Fils and the Yaounde Gynaeco- Obstetric and Paediatric hospital. Some of the media organs include L’Epervier Plus, La Nation d’Afrique, Kiss FM, La Nouvelle, Ouest Littoral, Le Satelitte.
Besides banning journalists and newspapers, the NCC recently issued warnings it would shut down media organs which reported on “Federalism”. The warning came after aging President Paul Biya warned there will be no negotiations regarding the form of the state. The Head of State made the statement following an on-going protest by minority English-speaking Cameroonians seeking the restoration of federalism as a way of curbing inequalities in sharing of state resources and political power.
These repressive measures taken by the state and its resistance to pressmen’s request for decriminalisation of libel has earned the country poor rankings in press freedom indexes. Freedom House classifies Cameroon’s press as “Not Free” while Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Cameroon, 130th out of 180 countries worldwide. Contrary to Minister Tchiroma’s claims Cameroon tops the press freedom index in Africa, there are 23 African countries ahead of Cameroon on the Reporters Without Borders Index. These include Zimbabwe(128th) Angola(125th) South Africa (31) Nigeria(122nd) Chad(121st)Mali(116th) Uganda(112th) CAR(113th) Zambia (114th) Burkina Faso (42nd) Ghana (26th) Namibia (24th) Botswana(48) Senegal (58th) Lesotho (68th) Tanzania( 83rd) Niger (61st ) Malawi (70th) Ivory Coast(81st) Guinea (101) Guinea Bissau (77th) Benin (78th) and Cape Vert (27th).
Peter Essoka, Chairman of the National Communication Council says the rankings are unjust. Communication Minister has also criticised the rankings, insisting everyone is free to speak his mind in Cameroon. It has become a common joke among media professionals in Cameroon; the saying “you are free to talk, but not free to walk after talking”.