Press freedom began to turn into a reality in this country ruled by President Paul Biya since 1982, even though it remained fragile. Numerous taboos were still in place and anyone who broke them suffered the consequences. But the year 2006 was difficult for the Cameroon press chiefly because of the actions of some unscrupulous editors.
Certainly, Cameroon is no longer the tense and brutal place it was in the first few years after 2000, when journalists were imprisoned even for poking fun. But it is still dangerous to be a journalist in a country in which the army, secessionist impulses on the part of the English-speaking region and corruption are still sensitive subjects. In addition, in common with other countries on the continent, poverty has fostered a press which is easily corrupted, exploited by business and political clans to outdo their rivals. In these conditions, press freedom is a precarious quality in Cameroon.
The year 2006 has been one in which the Cameroon press has been put in every shade of bad light. From the start of January, it was badly shaken by the case of the “homosexuals of the Republic”, which caused rifts and provoked disgust within the profession. On the pretext of serving “public health” in a country where homosexuality is a crime, low circulation newspapers chose to splash an alleged list of “deviant” public figures, appointed to positions of responsibility as a result of alleged “favours”. Quoting “reliable sources” (but always anonymous) and “concurring accounts” (but above all exaggerated), the alleged news put out by these papers was essentially a collection of rumours and vilification in extremely bad taste. If the objective of the editors was to bring in revenue for their companies, then the success was total. But unsurprisingly, several people targeted in this way took legal action against La Météo, l’Anecdote and Nouvelle Afrique.
Since the law in Cameroon provides for prison sentences for such ethical lapses, it is therefore likely that these unprincipled journalists will serve time in prison. Reporters Without Borders’s position, expressed in a comment piece carried by the privately-owned daily Le Messager and the privately-owned weekly Le Jeune Observateur, was quite clear: While unreservedly condemning this kind of journalism, tinged with hatred, as have a large majority of Cameroon’s journalists, the organisation above all stresses that prison is not a reply to these abuses. On the contrary, these mercenaries of journalism, once sentenced, will serve their sentences and come out crowned with all the glory of press freedom martyrs. Reporters Without Borders has therefore proposed to the Cameroon government that it reforms not only its press law but also its mechanisms for regulating the media. The Communications Minister, Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, attempted to introduce reform but it was clumsy and inadequate, proposing administrative police powers for the ministry which would allow it to order the seizure of newspapers. This was rejected by parliament and the minister finished by resigning his post in the autumn without having pushed through this reform.
The press still under threat
In September and November, two incidents served as a reminder that journalists in Cameroon are not fully guaranteed the right to inform the public. Duke Atangana Etotogo, editor of the privately-owned weekly L’Afrique centrale, was held by military security in Yaoundé from 3-7 September. He was only released after writing a letter of apology to the defence minister and the head of state. The former editor of the weekly La Nouvelle presse and La Météo, two papers with a provocative approach, had just launched a new monthly paper. In its first edition on 28 August, it carried a report exposing mismanagement and corruption with the army. It also closely examined several incidents involving the management style of Defence Minister, Rémy Ze Meka, quoting anonymous sources.
Overnight on 6-7 November, three hooded men broke into the home of Agnès Taile, presenter of an open microphone programme on privately-owned Sweet FM radio in Douala. They dragged her outside and savagely beat her. Taile had since June 2005 moderated a broadcast called “it’s your turn to speak” in which listeners phoned in on news subjects. Three weeks before the assault, she had received several anonymous telephone calls telling her to stop her “pursuit”. She had said publicly at the time that she was not frightened by these attempts to intimidate her. As often in this type of case, the subsequent police investigation went nowhere.