Close to a dozen journalists have been arrested and thrown behind bars in Cameroon since 2016 in connection to their reporting the armed conflict between government soldiers and separatist fighters in the North West and South West regions. While few have been released, the body of Samuel Wazizi, a journalist arrested in Buea in the South West remains with the government close to a year after he died in a detention facility in Yaoundé.
Journalists keen on reporting the armed conflict and cases of human rights violations in the embattled regions are often accused by the government of Cameroon of collaborating with armed separatists. For this, the government has since embarked on a process of arbitrarily arresting and detaining journalists and other media workers.
The armed conflict has so far recorded over three thousand deaths in the English-speaking regions, over seventy thousand internally displaced persons, and close to a million refugees in the neighboring Federal Republic of Nigeria. As the regime of President Paul Biya holds firm on imposing a military solution to what Southern Cameroon activists call a ‘purely political problem’, some journalists (mostly in the Anglophone regions)have been quitting the profession for safety.
Lambert Kehven works in a bakery in Yaoundé in the Centre region of Cameroon. Since November 2020, the former correspondent of Canal 2 international television attests that despite the salary situation, he remains grateful to the proprietor of the bread-producing factory for employing him at a time he thought his world was crumbling.
Before his employment in the bakery in Yaoundé, the former station manager of Bui Community Radio in Kumbo, North West region of Cameroon tried a hand in farming in Ekomite village situated some thirty-nine kilometers away from Yaoundé, the political capital of the country.
“While in the village, I rented a piece of land to farm. I planted maize. My wife, son, and I arrived in the village and had no place to stay. We did not have money to immediately rent a house so we squatted with some good people in a community that was totally strange to us,” Lambert recounted when we met him in Yaoundé.
Lambert Kehven in a tone of regret says, “I am surviving by the grace of God. Everything I am doing is just to survive since I quit journalism. This is just to have food on the table. Journalism is my passion but because of the hostile media landscape in Cameroon, I cannot practice at the moment”.
“I was arrested by military men in Bankikaay village, Bui division and taken to the Tobin Gendarmerie Brigade for interrogation on the 29th of December 2019. The military men just drove near me, whisked me into their vehicle and took off,”
Lambert says he was detained for close to two weeks on an accusation of working and furnishing information to separatist fighters – civilians who are using arms with the hope of splitting the Republic of Cameroon and obtaining the independence of Former Southern Cameroon otherwise known as Ambazonia.
“I went to Bankikaay as a journalist to conduct an interview and I was taken. While working in Bui division, I was attacked by separatists and the administration (military) for reporting objectively as the norms and ethics of the profession demand,” Lambert furthered.
To Lambert, the government of Cameroon represented by the military and other administrative officials and separatist fighters in Bui division “…wanted to use me as a tool for propaganda. That I refused to do…”
He explained how the Divisional Officer of Kumbo at the time threatened him for reporting the abandonment of duty posts by civil servants in the town on the pretext of insecurity.
Before his arrest by military men, Lambert Kehven attests having been invited and questioned several times by boys fighting for the restoration of the state of Ambazonia called “Bui Warriors”.
The journalist says he was abandoned by officials of his media house when he most needed their support following accusations of supporting separatist fighters leveled against him by the military.
When the armed conflict in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon will end is not known. Yet, Lambert Kehven looks forward to when peace will return. “When the war will end, I will go back to the media”.
The case of Lambert Kehven as a journalist is not an isolated one. In the South West region, the main broadcaster at a Community Radio in Bonakanda village, Buea subdivision is now involved in the production of pastry and detergent products in the city of Yaoundé to earn a living. Mary Namondo resigned as a journalist and fled Bonakanda following insecurity in 2019.
“Circumstances led to my resignation. On September 3, 2019, our media house was attacked and set ablaze by separatist fighters.I was abducted in the course of the attack and kept in their custody under unfair condition for two days. Immediately I was released, I resigned,” she said.
Mary resigned and fled from the crisis-hit South West region and resettled in Yaoundé in the Centre region. “It has been difficult to survive in Yaoundé but since I have a diploma in secretarial work, I got a place to work. Despite this, the main thing I do is pastry and detergent products. I produce and sell to meet up with the high standard of living in Yaoundé,” the graduate from the University of Buea stated.
She states firmly that she has temporally quit journalism because of insecurity and threats to eliminate her by unknown individuals. Threats that have not killed the ever-burning desire to practice the profession. “I miss the journalism profession. It has always been my dream to be a big journalist in the world but because of the insecurity now in Cameroon, I have halted. When the war will end, I will gladly go back to my passionate profession journalism”.
“While practicing journalism in Oku, Bui Division in the North West region of Cameroon, I encountered several challenges to a point that I almost lost my life. One day, I was almost shot by the military while I was trekking to the radio. My motorcycle was seized. A few days after, separatist fighters kidnapped some of my colleagues. I had to escape for my life,” Kwei Nathaniel Yancho recounted with a visible expression of regret and fear.
To the former journalist of Oku Rural Radio, actions of both separatists and the government forces could no longer permit him to practice journalism in an area he describes as “…hostile to journalists”.
Besides threats, torture, and kidnapping of journalists and other media workers in the locality, Nathaniel posits that the radio has practically lost all sources of income as insecurity persists.
“The radio generated income through adverts, announcements, coverage, and subvention from the council. All these were no longer available as locals are fleeing to more safe areas. Constant battles between separatists and the military have rendered the place inhabitable for civilians,” he says.
Relocating to Douala, the Littoral region of Cameroon since 2019, Nathaniel has embraced the teaching profession to earn a living. “I teach in a primary school in Douala to at least have food and pay my bills. It is true I fled Oku Rural Radio as a journalist but it is a passion I cannot totally abandon. I will go back to journalism when the war is over”.
Government, separatist sledgehammer dangles on journalists
Journalists and other media workers practicing in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon say they are caught in a web of insecurity orchestrated by the military and separatists and thus suffocating the practice of responsible journalism.
“Journalists reporting the armed conflict in Cameroon are in the vicious circle of insecurity,” Fah Elvis Tayong, a journalist based in Buea, South West of Cameroon stated.
To him, there is no journalism piece that can be appreciated by both separatist fighters and the military at the same time. “…this means we journalists are at risk of paying even with our blood for whatever we write or say”.
He adds that the media landscape is today scarier than the war front itself.
According to Mary Namondo, separatist fighters attacked Bonakanda Community Radio on the accusation that the media organ propagated information encouraging pupils and students to resume school after years of boycott. The fighters since 2017 have been calling for school boycotts as a means to force the government of Cameroon to recognize the independence of the people of Southern Cameroon. At the same time, the state keeps frowning at media workers and other Cameroonians in the restive regions for staying in their homes every Monday declared “Ghost Town Day” by separatists since 2017.
Law No.2014/028 of 23 December 2014 on the suppression of acts of terrorism in Cameroon, journalists say, keeps infringing on the importance of human rights and freedoms and the handling of sensitive information by journalists. Going by the 2014 anti-terrorism law in Cameroon, a journalist can be arrested and tried for investigating a story the state rates as threatening its existence.
The law punishes with the death penalty ‘whoever acting alone as an accomplice or accessory, commits or threatens to commit an act likely to cause death, endanger physical integrity, cause bodily injury or material damage, intimidate the public or provoke a situation of terror’.
To journalists that are quitting the profession in Cameroon, the hostility of the military towards media men and women is unbearable and life threatening. A claim Achu Rosette Muma Bih says does not aptly describe the situation of journalists in the South West region of Cameroon.
“…as the regional delegate of communication for the South West, I have not had a case of military brutalizing journalists. Journalists should know that this is not the time to stand and defend the profession. They should respect the military to defend the security of the state,” she said.
In a statement published by “Reporters Without Borders” in the 2021 World’s press freedom index, RWB says “The number of journalists who are being driven out of their homes as insecurity persists in Cameroon is on the rise. This is not only dangerous for them and their families but also several remote communities especially in the Anglophone regions have been deprived of information as media houses are shutting down for safety.”
“Reporters Without Borders” points that “…harassments of journalists take the form of imprisonment, forced disappearance, murder, torture and death while in detention”
State security against journalism?
The number of journalists arrested and detained in Cameroon has witnessed a major increase in the past five years. Most of those arrested are leveled charges that relate to the armed conflict in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon. To the government of Cameroon, objective reporting needs to be sidelined when supreme state security is threatened by those asking for the independence of Southern Cameroon.
The government in several instances accuses journalists of collaborating with separatist fighters to jeopardize the security of the state. However, all journalists in the country are closely monitored by the state secret security service, those of English expression and those practicing in the North West and South West regions say the government’s censorship during this period of crisis is overwhelming.
“Journalists should not delve into stories of armed conflict they are not capable of handling,” Achu Rosette Muma Bih says.
The South West Regional Delegate of Communication posits that apart from journalists working with the state media, others have no training in reporting conflict and crisis and therefore, to avoid judicial matters with the state, “…they should work on other beats like economy or social issues…”
According to the president of the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists, CAMASEJ, warring parties in Cameroon see journalists as a threat. Viban Jude says, “The decision by some journalists to abandon the profession at this time is that of self-censorship. No story is worth it when the reporter does not live to read, watch or listen to the report. Government is at war and cannot be a friend to journalists who want to uncover the truth. This explains why several journalists have been rough-handled by state security.”
He agrees that as the armed conflict drags on, journalists in Cameroon are becoming more professional in reporting without emotions, as was the case at the beginning of the crisis in 2016.
While recognizing that some journalists following threats of insecurity are abandoning the profession, the regional delegate of communication says, “They are abandoning the profession because of kidnappings, killings, and all sorts of atrocities. If they are quitting, it’s not because the government is not providing enough security for them, the governor and the minister of communication have given us instructions to educate them to understand that the security of the state takes priority».
She calls on journalists to double-check facts before publishing.
In a statement broadcast on national radio and television on January 20, 2017, the president of the National Communication Council in Cameroon, Peter Essoka threatened to administratively sanction any state or privately owned media that will disseminate information that tends to condone secession or federalism in Cameroon.
The government of Cameroon and Southern Cameroon activists continues to disagree on how to silence the guns for peace to reign. This has implanted terror making the North West and South West regions a risk zone for journalists.
Observers say the hostile environment explains why the armed conflict remains one of the most under-reported in the world with corresponding consequences, crimes committed with impunity against journalists and other civilians by armed men and the military.
By Dominic Meme N.