Al Jazeera Journalism Review

A condolence book was opened for the late Martinez Zogo at the headquarters of the Amplitude FM radio station where was station manager
A condolence book was opened for the late Martinez Zogo at the headquarters of the Amplitude FM radio station where he was station manager

Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Growing up in his native Douala in Cameroon's Littoral region, Christian Locka, now in his forties, abhorred injustice, wickedness and lies-telling in every form. But Locka was also curious about happenings around him – such as the mystery behind the existence of the radio – which would later elicit the journalism passion in him. “Without knowing that journalism was all about denouncing societal ills, l soon discovered that I can use it to expose and denounce them,” Locka tells AJR in a telephone chat. After a decade and a half of exposing human rights abuses, corruption, illicit financial flows and organized crime in his country and the central African sub-region, Locka propelled his dream job forward by founding “The Mesuba” project in 2019. “Mesuba”, which in his native Duala language means “The Trumpet”, has since metamorphosed into an independent, non-profit news organization fronting investigative reporting and training in the central African sub-region.

“The trumpet is an instrument that emits sounds to far-off locations. In setting up “The Mesuba” project, we wanted to send out the sound [of societal malpractices] from the central African sub-region to the rest of the world,” Locka says. “Whenever I receive a news tipoff, I first crosscheck from different sources to make sure it is factual. Once I establish this, I dig further to get more facts. After this, I do the writing by putting the sources as [key] players. Journalism is a hobby to me.” But that doesn't mean things are always rosy for Locka – and many other investigative journalists in Cameroon. He narrates an incident when he was arrested and detained in Cameroon’s Far North region in 2014 by the country's elite forces while investigating the kidnap of a French priest by Boko Haram militants. Few years later, Locka narrowly escaped the wrath of Central African Republic rebels when he went undercover to report their sale of “blood diamonds” in the black market. “I posed as a middleman wanting to facilitate diamond sale. Before the rebels could realise what was happening, I had left with my evidence,” he recalls. Locka also admits receiving “several threats” in his quest to uncover the truth and hold power to account. “But I have never abandoned a story because of threats,” he says.  

Dangerous Working Environment for Journalists 

Journalists in Cameroon continue to face threats and danger in their line of duty, particularly those who engage in investigative reporting. At least three journalists were killed in Cameroon in 2023 alone while several others received threats. A glaring case was Martinez Zogo, a journalist and programme host whose remains were found five days after he was kidnapped by unknown gunmen on January 17, 2023. Zogo, 51, was known for using his Embouteillage (traffic jam) daily programme on the Amplitude FM radio station to tackle cases of corruption – often going as far as questioning important personalities by name.  

Cameroonian journalist, Samuel Wazizi, was detained in 2019 for criticising the government’s handling of the ongoing separatist revolt
Cameroonian journalist, Samuel Wazizi, was detained in 2019 for criticising the government’s handling of the ongoing separatist revolt.

Six journalists are currently languishing in jail in Cameroon. Of this number, four (Mancho Bibixy, Thomas Awah Junior, Tsi Conrad, and Kingsley Fomunyuy Njoka) are indicted for secession-related charges. Another Cameroonian journalist, Samuel Wazizi, was detained in 2019 for criticising the government’s handling of the ongoing separatist revolt. He was only confirmed dead 10 months later, but his body has never been handed over  to his family. In May last year, Anglophone separatist fighters shot dead journalist Anye Nde Nsoh at a leisure spot in Bamenda, in the war-torn Northwest region. Cameroon ranked 138 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’(RSF) 2023 World Press Freedom Index. Earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked the central African nation as the third worst jailer of journalists behind Egypt and Eritrea.  

Angela Quintal, Head of CPJ’s Africa Programme says Cameroon’s media freedom environment has “deteriorated significantly” for more than a decade now and that independent journalists, including investigative journalists, continue to operate in an environment of repression, fear and censorship, including self-censorship. The government of Cameroon has often touted the hundreds of media outlets in the country (600+ newspapers, nearly 200 radio stations and more than 60 TV channels) as proof of a diverse and healthy press freedom environment, but Quintal insists that this doesn't in anyway create any conducive environments for independent journalism and investigative journalism.  

In addition to arresting journalists and jailing them, Quintal laments that Cameroon has also become “increasingly dangerous” to operate in, with murder being the ultimate form of censorship.   

“Why do I say this? Cameroon is among the worst jailers of journalists in Africa and has appeared consistently since 2014 in our annual census of jailed journalists around the world,” Quintal tells AJR. In addition to arresting journalists and jailing them, Quintal laments that Cameroon has also become “increasingly dangerous” to operate in, with murder being the ultimate form of censorship.   

“The brutal torture and killing of Martinez Zogo and the murder of Jean-Jacques Ola Bebe in 2023 had a chilling effect on the media more broadly in Cameroon – something we saw with a lesser degree for the death in custody of Samuel Wazizi in 2019,” she says. “Significantly, Cameroon tied third with Mexico in terms of the most journalists killed in connection to their work last year, after Israel and Gaza (1st) and Lebanon (2nd), according to CPJ’s latest annual census of jailed journalists around the world on December 1, 2023.  Previously, we have seen journalists who are exposing corruption being arrested and charged on trumped up charges, as was the case, for example, with Bibi Ngota, who died in custody in 2010. Other threats to media freedom come from corporations and businesspeople,” Quintal explained.  

Her views are shared by Sadibou Marong, Director of RSF’s Sub-Saharan Africa bureau who points out that the degree of impunity for perpetrators of acts of violence against journalists including investigative journalists remains “very high” in Cameroon. “In RSF's daily monitoring of press freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, we document several cases of journalists assaulted, threatened, prevented from working or even kidnapped and then killed like the case of Martinez Zogo. It is a country where in recent years, many journalists have been victims of abuse or violence,” Marong tells AJR. “Then there is the difficult economic environment of the media and often the attempts to control editorial content by certain authorities who keep the advertisements that they want to use to often wage certain political battles through the media,” Marong said.  

Journalist-Source Dynamics: Collaboration versus Conflict

But Dr. Nseme Stephen Ndode, Lecturer of Journalism and Mass Communication in Cameroon's University of Buea, believes that Cameroon's media environment has improved over the years from hardcore censorship – where newspapers, for example, could not publish without due authorization from administrators – to today, where very little or no consultation is made before publication. Publishers and editors simply take responsibility for contents in their press organs, he says. “The multiplicity of media organs in the country makes the media landscape peculiar and gives room for positive competition. This ties with the democratic participant media theory, where multiple media allow everyone, including those at grassroots, to be heard,” Dr Ndode tells AJR. He dismisses claims that the Cameroon government is “hostile” toward investigative journalists. Dr. Ndode highlights that the central issues often revolve around the subject a journalist is investigating and the journalist's own intentions and ethical stance. "Investigative journalism must not devolve into a tool for personal vendettas," he asserts. "Such motivations can lead to precarious outcomes from a media and communications standpoint." I advocate for ethical journalism and the need for individuals and institutions to collaborate with the media to give reliable and credible information. Without so, building credible institutions remains elusive.”  

In a recent article which he co-authored with other journalism scholars entitled: “Governmental information hoarding and its effects on journalism practice”, published in the Journal of Corporate Law and Governance Review, Dr Ndode and his team observe that some individuals and institutions hoard information under the pretext that it is “sensitive”. “Not all information is of sensitive nature,” he maintains. “We recommended that sources of information and journalists should not see themselves as enemies, but rather, as partners in development.” 

 

Going Undercover to Unearth Important Stories 

Like many investigative journalists in Cameroon, veteran international investigative journalist, Chief Bisong Etahoben, shares grisly tales of his half a century experience in the field. Seventy-two-year-old Bisong, who's reported extensively for several international news media organisations and contributed in transnational and national investigations says he has repeatedly been threatened, attacked, and at some points, detained in the execution of his duty as a journalist. “As a young reporter for the Cameroon Times, I was arrested in 1970, detained for several months and eventually tried before the Buea Military Tribunal in connection with what became known popularly as the Ernest Ouandi affair,” said Bisong who is currently serving as in-house lead investigator for ZAM magazine published in The Netherlands. He tells AJR that he has been involved in secretive investigative reporting involving several African countries including due diligence “digging” on several African corporate and political heavyweights (Presidents and Prime Ministers included) which have resulted in “earthquake changes” in several economic and political spheres. “Of course, I was never identified, which accounts for why I have never been imprisoned for my investigative work,” he says.

Cameroon still lacks a Freedom of Information Act which would compel official sources to disclose public information. (Photo: Nalova Akua)
Cameroon still lacks a Freedom of Information Act which would compel official sources to disclose public information. (Photo: Nalova Akua)

In 2021, Bisong was attacked while investigating a Cameroonian business mogul who was gunning for an international distributorship in the Central African sub-region for a British company after he turned down a FCFA 50 million (roughly USD 83,000) bribe offer to abandon the story. “I was attacked around 7 p.m. in Great Soppo in Buea. Luckily, they attacked me in a place where I could shout and people will come to my rescue. But all the same they did damage to my eye which needed an operation,” he says. But Bisong says he's never been forced to abandon an investigative story idea because of threats and attacks. “This is because most of the “dangerous” stories I have had to investigate, I did so under “cover” and surely my head should have fallen if I was ever identified.” Like Bisong, Amindeh Blaise Atabong, Cameroonian freelance journalist who reports for Reuters, Semafor Africa, Equal Times, Quartz Africa, among others, has on several occasions, been attacked and threatened – but not imprisoned. Amindeh says he was attacked in 2016 while investigating a scam involving security officials and medical staff who connived with a phony Cameroon Red Cross to hoodwink hundreds of University students in a fictitious Red Cross volunteer recruitment programme. “I did undercover reporting and I was unfortunate that at one point the dubious agent discovered I was a journalist. He got several men to attack me. I successfully escaped, but not without a bloodied and battered body and bruises,” he tells AJR.  

Amindeh also recalls receiving several phone threats from an unknown person sometimes between 2015 and 2017, who ordered him to stop writing for CameroonJournal.com following a story which had been published by a colleague about the presidential family for the same publication. “On one occasion, I was forced to abandon a story following sustained threats from the subject I was investigating. As my mentors often advise, it’s better to try as much as you can to stay alive to tell more stories than to die for one,” he says. 

Absence of Freedom of Information Act 

Although the preamble to Cameroon's 1996 constitution guarantees both freedom of expression and of the press, libel and slander remain both civil and criminal offenses in the country. A guilty verdict can mean a prison term of up to six months and or a hefty fine. The criminalisation of press offenses has affected the quality of journalism in the country, because it has forced journalists to exercise self-censorship.  

“We have seen in the country that the legal framework surrounding journalistic practice still seems not adequate to us, the absence of decriminalization of press offenses, of a law on access to information, etc.,” confirms RSF’s Marong. Indeed, another issue which compounds the situation of the Cameroonian journalist is the lack of access to official sources of information. The country still lacks a Freedom of Information Act which would compel official sources to disclose public information. Quintal of CPJ says the lack of such a law constitutes an “impediment” which just goes to show how the government is “not committed to transparency and accountability”.  “As we have seen elsewhere on the continent and the world, investigative journalists have managed to expose corruption, through access to information laws and it is but one tool for investigative journalists to try and do their jobs effectively,” she tells AJR. “The lack of such a law also means that citizens' right to information (which is a corollary to press freedom) is hampered. It has something to hide and fears scrutiny by the media and civil society.” 

There is the difficult economic environment of the media and often the attempts to control editorial content by certain authorities who keep the advertisements that they want to use to often wage certain political battles through the media

While acknowledging that a Freedom of Information Act is always seen as a progress for a country and an opportunity for citizens – including journalists and investigative journalists to request public interest document and information – Marong of RSF notes that there are still countries with such laws where journalists still struggle to have access to public information. “For example, I think a country like Togo with an Access to Information Law is not better than Senegal without such a law. But we [still] think such laws are crucial for Africa and it's high time for Cameroon to have one,” he said.  

Communication scholar, Dr. Ndode, agrees that the absence of the Freedom of Information Act limits the power of journalists to gain access to certain information. He, however, thinks this should not discourage them, given the presence of multiple information sources available. “Media institutions are open to a variety of sources today, including online sources. They should use these wide-ranging opportunities,” he tells AJR. Opportunities which many journalists are making good use of to gain access to key sources of information today.   

Journalist Locka says he mostly leverages on the information gotten from the internet, whistleblowers, and NGOs, to build his investigative stories. In addition to using open sources, Amindeh relies on his “vast network” of contacts to circumvent this hurdle. While veteran investigative journalist Bisong says the corruptibility of most Cameroonian public officials works in favour of journalists carrying out even the most dangerous and difficult investigations. “Some public officials are ready to leak out vital information to you once you give them some money,” he says.  

 

Journalists in the Dragnet of the Anti-Terrorism Law  

The last but not the least obstacle to the practice of journalism in Cameroon is the overly broad anti-terrorism law enacted in 2014. With this law, the government can label journalists – just like opinion leaders, activists and government critics – as “terrorists” and prosecute them in military courts. Citizens and journalists even within the digital and physical space, risk jail terms of up to 20 years regarding an opinion or expression that the government deems might affect public order which they interpret as acts of terrorism which fall within the exclusive competence of military tribunals for adjudication purposes.  

More than a dozen journalists have been detained or forced into exile since the law was passed. The charges against them included ‘complicity in hostility against the fatherland, secession, propagation of false news, insurrection, incitement to civil war, and complicity in acts of terrorism’. Former Radio France Internationale correspondent, Ahmed Abba, was arrested in 2015 and accused, under the Anti-terrorism Law, of complicity and failure to report terrorist acts. He was tortured and held incommunicado for three months.  

Marong from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) asserts that the law is not just detrimental, but also curtails basic rights safeguarded by Cameroon's Constitution and international statutes. "Its overly vague definition of terrorism could be used to unjustly label expressions of free speech as criminal. Furthermore, it significantly hampers press freedom," he remarks. This criticism follows the prosecution of journalists such as Rodrigue Tongué, Felix Ebole Bola, and Baba Wamé under the same contentious legislation. 

Citizens and journalists even within the digital and physical space, risk jail terms of up to 20 years regarding an opinion or expression that the government deems might affect public order which they interpret as acts of terrorism which fall within the exclusive competence of military tribunals for adjudication purposes. 

Quintal from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) characterizes the 2014 legislation as "particularly egregious," highlighting its usage as a tool to "quash criticism and stifle dissent." She recounts instances where the excessively broad anti-terror law has been wielded against journalists reporting on the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Cameroon and notes an increase in its application with the onset of the Anglophone crisis in late 2016, leading to multiple charges and detentions of journalists. She points out that the anti-terror law has rendered investigative journalism into corruption issues, such as military procurement in the Far North, virtually impossible due to the region's status as off-limits for independent journalists who are expected to be embedded with government forces for conflict reporting. "The legislation has also suppressed reporting in the two English-speaking regions, prompting many media outlets to self-censor rather than face the possibility of arrest or sanctions by the National Communication Council. Furthermore, the utilization of criminal defamation and false news charges has consistently obstructed investigative journalists' efforts to hold the powerful accountable and report the truth," she explains. 

However, Journalism and Mass Communication scholar of Cameroon's University of Buea, Dr Ndode, believes journalists should have “little” to worry about the anti-terrorism law if they stay true to themselves and to the call of journalism. “Research evidence exists to show how emotional some reporters are when reporting conflicts. At worst, they choose sides, thereby fanning the flames of conflicts,” according to Dr Ndode. “If one stays true to themselves and avoids partisan journalism, bias reporting, hate journalism, and inciting violence, I think the law will not be after you. It follows those who go above ordinary texts to want to do what they want, how they like. Society cannot thrive under such conditions.” Journalist Bisong says the anti-terrorism law is not only one of the “biggest blows” to freedom of information and media practice, but is also one of the “most abused” legal legislations that Cameroon has ever passed. “However, journalists must ply their trade in order to survive and take care of their families, so they devise all ways and means – including the not-very-conventional and acceptable means – to gather the news,” concludes Bisong.  

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