Cameroon: media independence in the face of judicial repression and political control

Repression of the media scene in Cameroon, which in 1996 had 1,300 titles registered with the territorial administration, is protean. It ranges from the legal framework, which allows abuses of all kinds, to death threats against journalists, imprisonment, bullying and harassment of all kinds. It mobilizes a plurality of agents and has given rise to specific functions. At first glance, it appears to be scattered, but over the past fifteen years it has become a quasi-homogenous system whose aims are political command and the preservation of power at all costs, by means of authoritarian control over individuals and areas of freedom. This domination of the media by the political sphere has harmful effects. In addition to the violence it generates and to which it has recourse, it contributes significantly to the destructuring and informalization of the journalistic sector, and to the precariousness of the lives – and even survival – of its players.

This contribution analyzes the means used by the Cameroonian government to repress what its leading figures call « vandal » journalism, i.e. any press that does not, strictly speaking, play into the hands of the ruling elite. We’ll also look at how, on the legal and economic fronts, the types and methods of repression have become more refined and complex as political liberalization and the rise of civil society have taken hold. Beyond the techniques used to control the private press, this analysis sheds light on the ways in which power is retained in the new liberalized autocracies.

Relying on the significant powers that can be attached to the principle of respect for public order, institutions and those who embody them, the Cameroonian judiciary has been guilty of abuses of all kinds. An overview of the key cases brought against journalists over the last ten years underlines this.

The starting point for press trials in Cameroon is the « Monga-Njawé affair ». On December 27 1990, Célestin Monga, an economist, published an open letter to the President of the Republic in Le Messager, entitled « La démocratie truquée » (« Rigged democracy »). « How, » he raged, « can you say, ‘I brought you democracy…’ in this country where every day, elementary human rights are flouted, where the majority of people have nothing to live on, while a small handful of upstarts share the country’s wealth with impunity? » The deputies, he continues, are « illiterate, secretly voting on laws at night ». The economist and his publisher Pius Njawé, founder of Le Messager, were arrested and, on January 18, 1991, after three hearings, sentenced to six months’ suspended imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 CFA francs (458 euros) each for contempt of the President of the Republic and the constituted bodies.

Since then, four hundred trials have followed, more than one of which has been tainted by ridicule. For example, on October 27, 1995, a journalist was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for calling President Paul Biya a « thinking animal », the court having focused solely on the term « animal ». Another example is that of journalists from the daily Mutations, who were arrested and held in custody for several days in 2003, when their newspaper’s editorial office was ransacked and their homes searched, because they had dared to assert that First Lady Chantal Biya had become an important decision-maker in the inner workings of the palace, without holding an elective mandate.

Janvier Hassana

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