Cameroon’s vague anti-terror law is being used by the government to arrest and silence journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has revealed in a new report.
Published on Wednesday, the report, “Journalists Not Terrorists: In Cameroon, anti-terror legislation is used to silence critics and suppress dissent,” found that the law, purportedly enacted as part of the government’s anti-Boko Haram efforts, has led to the arrest, detention, and prosecution of journalists covering the Boko Haram conflict.
Radio France Internationale correspondent Ahmed Abba, for instance, was arrested after interviewing refugees fleeing Boko Haram. He was tried by a military tribunal that charged him with “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering the proceeds of terrorist acts,” for which he received a ten-year prison sentence. His lawyer is appealing the sentence.
Journalists critical of the Paul Biya regime, particularly his government’s suppression of Anglophone Cameroonian activists, have also been targets of the media crackdown, as authorities use the broad language of the anti-terror law to justify their actions.
CPJ found that in the midst of protests in the Anglophone regions, Cameroon’s National Communication Council handed down penalties to 14 publishers and their newspapers, one radio station managing director, and 15 journalists from 10 print and online media outlets, radio, and television stations for allegedly reporting “unfounded, offensive, and insinuating allegations.” The penalties ranged from one to six month suspensions to outright bans.
In addition to Mr. Abba, CPJ revealed that at least four other journalists were arrested and detained under the 2014 anti-terror law: Atia Tilarious Azohnwi, political editor of The Sun; Hans Achomba, a documentary filmmaker; Tim Finnian, publisher and editor of Life Time; and Jean-Claude Agbortem, a journalist for Camer Veritas. All four were detained for several months before a presidential decree issued on August 30, 2017 ordered their release. Before their release, the journalists were set to appear before a military tribunal, and if convicted, would have faced the death penalty.
Government suppression of dissent has created an environment of fear in the country, journalists told CPJ, leading to what the organization referred to as “self-censorship.”
“Honestly, in Cameroon now, most of us in the private media are free to report only on what the government wishes to see,” a journalist, speaking anonymously, told CPJ. “There is an atmosphere of fear. You don’t report on the issue of federalism [or] all those issues that are considered to be unfriendly to the regime – even if they are true.”
“For fear of the unknown, many now run away from hard news, especially if it will put their lives at risk,” an Anglophone journalist, who requested anonymity, told CPJ. “They prefer to avoid using certain words and have suspended very heated debate slots and programs…that may plunge them into trouble. To many, self-censorship saves them the trouble of being monitored or the dragnet of those who seek to silence their pens.”
CPJ noted that local and international media rights groups have protested Cameroon’s suppression of journalists, but multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations, African Union, and European Union, “have been slow to publicly condemn its actions.”
However, CPJ said it expects the international community to scrutinize Cameroon’s media crackdown as the country gears up for elections in 2018.