EXPOSED: Cameroon 'using anti-terror law to silence journalists', says group

2017-09-20 14:13
Preisdent Paul Biya (File: AFP)

Preisdent Paul Biya (File: AFP)

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Cape Town – Cameroon President Paul Biya's government is using an anti-terror legislation to arrest and threaten local journalists who report on Boko Haram militants and unrest in the country's English-speaking regions, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said.

With elections due to take place in 2018, many journalists were now "too scared" to cover politics or sensitive issues, CPJ said in a special report released on Wednesday.

Cameroon enacted the anti-terror law in December 2014 as part of its effort to counter Boko Haram, which has carried out kidnappings as well as attacks.

"… authorities are using the law against journalists such as [Ahmed] 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," the report said.

Read the full report here. 

Abba, a Radio France International (RFI) journalist was arrested in 2015 over his coverage of attacks by Boko Haram in northern part of the west African country.  

Jailed for 10 years 

After nearly two years, a military court convicted him in April of non-denunciation of terrorism and laundering the proceeds of terrorist acts. He was jailed for 10 years

Authorities believed Abba, who claimed that he was tortured for three months by intelligence agents before being transferred to a jail, collaborated with Boko Haram and failed to pass on information about planned attacks.

CPJ said that apart from detaining journalists, authorities had also 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," CPJ said in its report.

CPJ quoted an editor of one English publication as saying that the government conflated news coverage of militants or demonstrators with praise, resulting in journalists becoming confused as to what they could or could not report on safely.

Powerful tool of fear

"Publications are publishing blind because the government, out of frustration, can decide that any published report is trying to favour the agitators…. We are 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," the editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity was quoted as saying.

CPJ said that Cameroon had a diverse media environment, with at least 600 newspapers, 30 radio stations, 20 television stations and 15 news websites – but this did not mean that information flowed freely.

"Honestly, in Cameroon now, most of us in the private media are free to report only what the government wishes to see," said a newspaper proprietor who like many asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation. "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."

Opposition political parties also maintained that the anti-terror law as a powerful tool of fear. 

President Biya himself was appointed prime minister in 1975 and assumed the presidency in 1982. He was one of the longest serving presidents. The parliament revised the constitution in 2008 to remove presidential term limits. 

Read more on:    cpj  |  paul biya  |  cameroon  |  west africa

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