By Wifah Jennyhans Nde
Press freedom could be defined as the right of journalists or media organs to publish information without government censorship or control. Its practice started centuries back in the U.S and later spread across the world.
The existence of press freedom in Cameroon is a bleak reality. It is finely inscribed in the constitution of the land but the practice of which is a nightmare particularly to those who practice the profession, journalism. As Gwain Colbert a journalist in Bamenda puts it, ‘the law allowing press freedom in this country is finely crafted and abandoned in the cupboards for the documents to be eaten up by dust’. He further insinuates that contrary to this year’s theme on world press freedom day, ‘Critical minds for critical times: media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies’, in the context of Cameroon it should be uncritical minds for critical time…. He argued that the press freedom in
Cameroon is one in which people can be arrested just for thinking critically. Making reference to his radio talk show programme, Press and Associates with a local radio in Bamenda, he says while running the program, you find the radio proprietor always coming around to censor what should be said on air and even when the proprietor is not around, sometimes they are not sure of getting home after the programme. To him, press freedom in Cameron is still a dream, a dream desired by so many it becomes a reality. ‘Government officials interpret press freedom to mean the proliferation of media houses in Cameroon which is absolutely wrong’ Colbert expands.
According to the reports of Reporters Without Borders of 2016, Cameroon is one of the worst countries in the practice of press freedom ranked, 130 of 165 countries recently.
The press has constantly been on attack from diverse entities. While the government is persistently on the neck of the press to censor information that may hurt their reputation, ‘the regulatory organ, National Communication Council has remained pro-regime and operates as disciplinary body rather than an independent and objective organ’ as Peterkins Manyong puts it.
Repeated crack down on the press through court hearings sanctions ranging from suspensions to complete ban of programs, media houses and journalists and sometimes sentenced to prison with huge financial fines add to the already existing pains suffered by press men and women in the country.
On December 6, the National Communication Council (NCC) Cameroon’s media regulator handed down 24 sanctions imposing varying penalties on 14 publishers and their newspapers, the managing director of a radio station, and 15 journalists from 10 print and online newspapers, radio, and television stations for reports the council called “unfounded, offensive, and insinuating allegations” regarding government officials, business executives, and private individuals, according to media reports.
Among the most stringent sanctions were the permanent banning of the weekly Aurore Plus and Aurore newspapers from publishing, and the imposition of a permanent ban on the newspaper’s publisher, Michel Michaut Moussala, from practicing journalism because of the newspaper’s repeated publication of “unfounded allegations” badly playing down on press freedom in the country.
Ahmed Abba a journalist with Radio France Internationale Hausa-service was arrested and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on claims of being involved in terrorism. Without vouching for victims of whatever crime by journalists against whomever, journalists should receive fairer trials bearing in mind that they risk their lives in the interest of public.
Speaking to the SUN, Peterkins Manyong, the publisher of a newspaper with headquarters in Womb suggested that government should decriminalize libel. “Journalists, on no grounds, should be sentenced for practicing their profession”. He adds that there is no country in the world which practices press freedom that criminalizes libel.
The wake of the Anglophone crisis recently also brought to forefront the degree to which press freedom in Cameroon is a total sham. Rampant arrest of journalists on mere basis that their mobile phones had some messages in them which of course is one of the working tools of journalists. Some were brutalized struggling to get images for their news at meetings with government officials and their cameras either seized or damaged right before them.
The Ministry of Communication through its regional delegations particularly in Anglophone Cameroon warned private broadcasters from broadcasting political debates linked to the Anglophone crisis. “Owners of private radio and TV stations are called upon to stop all roundtable discussions on their networks concerning the current political atmosphere in the southwest region”, the directive read, according to a photograph of the document published to Twitter by Cameroonian journalist Comfort Moussa.
Paranoia seems to have crept in amongst journalist in Cameroon today as many a scared to even voice their thoughts and are bound to walk a fine line to avoid government crackdown. Peterkins says as a publisher, like most of his colleagues too, they have now embraced what he termed ‘extreme self-censorship’. He recounted that even when reporters bring relevant facts which can ‘hurt some people’ they are forced to eliminate facts in order not to run the paper into problems or land the reporter to prison.