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Media pluralism in Cameroon- the government against the state

Aloysius AGENDIA

Practising journalism in Cameroon is an arduous task. Yet, there are about 80 thematic, FM and community radio stations and equally 10 television channels in the country.  Hundred of newspapers though mostly periodic also inundate the media landscape and from a superficial look of things, one may rightly or wrongly conclude that the media landscape is free.  We must however, admit it has improved. But, what has Cameroon really benefited from the liberalisation of the media since 1990?

One may argue that jobs have been created and people are talking. But is it the state or the government that has really benefited from this? The answers may vary but I think the state has not benefited as it should, because the ingredients still put in place by the government do not permit the state to benefit that much.  In this case, media plurality in Cameroon has been a great blessing for the government but as a matter of fact, more of a curse to the state. Media practitioners have not been doing their job as they would have really loved to.

Access to information remains a major hurdle in Cameroon and this has made journalist to rightly or wrongly speculate. The government wants journalist to report its affairs not from the perspective of benefiting the state but from the perspective glorying the government. This partly accounts to why major newspapers in Cameroon have as major source of news, news conferences, press release or wanton declarations by some politicians and militants. This also corroborates the lagging nature of investigative journalism in the country. It is also among the reasons why the supposed state-owned newspaper Cameroon Tribune, is more of a government mouthpiece.

The rather bleak look does not in anyway mean journalists in Cameroon are not working hard enough. In reality, they are doing their best albeit the rugged nature of the terrain in terms of working conditions, access to information, law guiding the profession and the non respect of basic ethics by some.

As the world celebrated the 2010 Press Freedom day on May 3rd, hundred of journalists in Yaoundé and Douala, Cameroon’s two main cities took to the streets to protest against the rising harassments, intimidation and killing of journalists in country.

The protest   which ended again with the thumping of journalists was provoked by the death of Germain Cyrille Ngota Ngota (aka) Bibi Ngota, publisher of Cameroon Express. Ngota died April 22 at the Yaoundé- Kondengui Prison supposedly due to the refusal by prison authorities to grant him permission to go for treatment.

The Cameroon government which had promised to investigate the death, suddenly declared a few days after that Bibi Ngota died of AIDS related infections; a claim denied by the deceased’s wife and father.  But what even let to the incarceration of Ngota?

A look at it will make us understand the state of the press in Cameroon now though haven witnessed some positive developments,  still  unwillingly serves more of the interest of the government and not that of the state.

The bottom line is that Bibi Ngota died while probing a canker worm that has eaten deep into the fabric of the Cameroonian government and fast eroding the foundation of state and society. It has been aggravated by injustice, impunity and general lawlessness.

Luckily enough for the Cameroon government, her name did not feature on list of countries so cruel to journalists in 2009, though Freedom House in its 2010 report, says the media in Cameroon is not free at all.

What journalists in Cameroon really need?

Generally, journalists were not protesting against corruption or lawlessness or against the government. They were picketing in opposition to the harassment of their colleagues but also, for the removal of the criminal defamation clause in the Cameroonian Press law so that they may better carry out their activities and hence serving the state and not necessarily the government.

The libel laws are harsh. Journalists argue that the clause does not only prevent them from working freely, but, it also permits over zealous people in power to hijack, intimidate and send journalists to jail. However, advocates of criminal defamation contend that journalists must be responsible for their actions and should not be immune to justice. They hinge on the fact that journalists must investigate their information well before publishing. But for real investigation to take place, people must be ready to cooperate.

Though it is evident that the Cameroon government would not decriminalise defamation to make journalists almost as free as those in Sweden, Norway and South Africa, but not necessarily above the law, I think something can be done. It should be the enactment of the FREE INFORMATION ACT (FIA).   If the government does not wish to decriminalised defamation, why can it not enact the Free Information Act? I think enacting the FIA would make journalists able to serve our nation better.

With the FREE INFORMATION ACT (FIA), all those holding public office would be obliged to collaborate with accredited journalists carrying out any investigation. They would answer all the questions asked except those which are deemed to put the security of the state in danger. This will enable media practitioners to better play their role of the watchdog of the society. I have used the word because not everybody who works in a media organ is a journalist. Hence recognised journalist need full collaboration of all those who for the state or in the government.

 But again, there is what they Cameroon government calls “administrative tolerance” which permits media organs which have not met all legal requirements, to operate. It must be said that permitting media organs to operate on “administrative tolerance” also warrants “journalists” to operate under administrative tolerance. In this case, it remains the responsibility of media promoters to recruit qualified personnel.

It was really unfortunate that Bibi Ngota was sent to the death chamber just when he went to investigate a document allegedly incriminating a senior government minister. With the FIA in place, the minister would have been obliged to cooperate with the journalist or to allow the journalist to go ahead to publish the document while acknowledging that the latter refused to collaborate.

 Enacting such a law will not add a dime into the coffers of the already poorly paid journalists, but, it will help the state save billions as investigative journalists will dig up what has been hidden for long. Under the present conditions carrying out detailed investigate reporting in Cameroon especially on corruption, is a deadly issue. In a society where  the judiciary, executive and legislature is under one person or one body, enacting real changes that will benefit the state are far fetch There will always be changes that will benefit the government.

The nation-state of Cameroon has signed and ratified the AU Charter on Human right and freedom as well as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights including article 19(2) on freedom of expression and opinion. However, the government of Cameroon has always been reluctant to allow Cameroonians enjoy these rights fully.

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