Over the last couple of years, large sections of Cameroonian media have not been kind to President Paul Biya, or his increasingly beleaguered administration. The long-serving president – 35 years and counting – is under fire for failing to contain the terrorist threat in the north; for committing abuses in the name of fighting that threat; for sidelining and discriminating against Cameroon’s significant English-speaking minority; and for locking up and intimidating political opponents.
That’s all before we get into the allegations of corruption and poor governance that have long dogged his government.
But the Cameroonian government has found a way to silence these critical voices, according to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), released on Wednesday. It has used the ambiguous provisions of a new anti-terrorism law, enacted in 2014, to arrest and harass journalists – and instil fear into others.
One high profile example is that of Ahmed Abba, a journalist for Radio France International, who was arrested in 2015 while attempting to cover Boko Haram-related insecurity in the northwest. He was convicted on the bizarre charges of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering the proceeds of terrorist acts”, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
CPJ confirmed that in addition to Abba, at least four other journalists have so far been arrested under the controversial anti-terror law.
“CPJ found that authorities are using the law against journalists such as Abba who report on the militants, and others who have reported on unrest in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions or are critical of Biya’s administration,” wrote authors Angela Quintal, a veteran South African journalist [and former editor of the Mail & Guardian], and researcher Jonathan Rozen.
“In addition to detaining journalists, authorities have banned news outlets deemed sympathetic to the Anglophone protesters, shut down internet in regions experiencing unrest, and prevented outside observers, including CPJ, from accessing the country by delaying the visa process. Journalists say that the risk of arrest or closure has led to an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship – an unhealthy climate considering that elections are scheduled for next year,” they said.
The elections are planned for October 2018. Although Biya, with all the advantages of incumbency, remains the favourite, he is likely to face a stiff challenge from a resurgent opposition. But the concerted attacks on independent media means that he is unlikely to get a rough ride in the press.
“Honestly, in Cameroon now, most of us in the private media are free to report only what the government wishes to see,” one newspaper proprietor told CPJ, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution. “There is an atmosphere of fear. You don’t report about the issue of federalism [or] all those issues that are considered to be unfriendly to the regime – even if they are true.”
Another editor said that it wasn’t always easy to predict what stories might be unpopular with the government. “Publications are publishing blind because the government, out of frustration, can decide that any published report is trying to favor the agitators. We are not told what the difference is about reporting the facts or acclaiming what is happening and we therefore run the risk of contravening the anti-terrorism law.”
Cameroon’s media is one of the most vibrant and diverse in Africa, boasting 600 newspapers, 30 radio stations, 20 television stations, and 15 news websites, according to the National Communication Council. But the country has slipped four places in the latest World Press Freedom Index, from a ranking of 126 in 2016 to 130 this year.