Cameroon has come to be known as one of the most notorious countries on the African continent when it comes to the poor treatment of journalists, with its actions ranging from arbitrary arrests to torture and detention.
Till date, the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ and other bodies have not stopped calling for the release of a number of incarcerated pressmen including Samuel Wazizi and Wawa Jackson with the whereabouts of some unknown.
The coming of the Anglophone crisis seems to have made matters worse. On Sunday, reporter for The Median Newspaper, Doh Bertrand almost lost his life in the line of duty after he had covered elections in Mamfe in the restive South West Region and was returning to Buea through Kumba.
Travelling alongside politicians guarded by a military convoy, they came under intense attack from Ambazonian separatists.
“Only God alone knows how I was saved from the cartridges that riddled our car. The glass of the vehicle’s front seat where I sat was completely brought down. The broken glasses fell on me. Anything could happen at this juncture to me as more cartridges kept pouring on our car. I had just a BIR helmet that was surrendered to me by one of the BIR drivers at Nguti,” Doh narrated.
The journalist’s near death experience once more sparked a discussion on the safety of Cameroon journalists in the line of their duty.
Talking to MMI, Jato Derick, South West Regional President of the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union, SNJC, says one of the most challenging aspects of being a reporter within the recent security context is the suspicion from both sides involved in the bloody war.
“Government sees them as those who are there to uncover what they want to cover and the separatists see them as those who are accompanying government action to tell the world government version about the situation on ground. They take journalists for spies driving the government idea,” he says.
During Sunday’s elections for instance, aspirants, he notes, were escorted by the forces of law and order but journalists were left to their fate. This, he says, “made the election a scary venture. Some of us did not even go to certain places because our security was not guaranteed”.
Fokwen Maxcel, Political Desk Editor and Staff Representative at The Guardian Post newspaper shares a similar view, adding that it is hard to understand if one has not worked in the regions.
What drives many media practitioners in the Anglophone regions right now, he says, is the passion for the job and nothing else.
“Sometimes people sit on TV panels and write from distant places without really knowing what reporters go through there. It is like somebody living in hell and then trying to cross over to heaven,” he says.
The constraints of the job due to the crisis, he adds, sometimes forces journalists to stay away from the public space after doing certain reports.
To be able to survive in the conflict-stricken regions, Fokwen recommends vigilance for pressmen but above all a better understanding of their surroundings.
“If you don’t know the politics of your area,” he says, “you may die before your time … it is better to stay safe and report the next event than to die and not witness it.”
“It is really a difficult situation and nobody cares about reporters. It is a matter of personal security. Take your measures and see if you will continue practicing or you will stop and be waiting for the day when the security situation is going to improve,” Fokwen adds.
Regarding Doh Bertrand’s case, the President of the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists, CAMASEJ, Viban Jude says the political class failed to show concern for the pressmen.
“We are disappointed that while the elite class was in the armored cars, they [journalists] were shoved into a pickup that had no protection. If the elite class jumps into an armour car, it means that they knew of the danger that was along that road … the lives of journalists are as worthy as those of the authorities that they travel with”.
To the CAMASEJ President, journalists deserve better and should not sacrifice their lives for any story. What journalists should strive for, he notes, is first staying alive before getting the story. Security of journalists in Cameroon, he went on, cuts across and falls on the shoulders of the journalist, media houses and government.
He said “it is neglected in all houses, be it private or public, so we need to hammer on that. Media houses in Cameroon need to think about the security of journalists”.
While better working conditions for journalists will include requesting better pay, better working conditions and insurance, getting these is easier said than done.
Talking about working conditions, better pay and other aspects regarding the work environment, Jato Derick holds that it comes with its own challenges.
“You risk going out because an employer will not condone that … that’s where the fear is. Nobody will back you up. Forget about the legal procedures … even if it works, it will take time. You cannot fight the bigger ones here in Cameroon. It is difficult,” he tells MMI.
The secret to getting better treatment, Viban Jude suggests, is for journalists to start telling their own stories as no one else will do so for them.
“Let journalists start talking about it and see the importance of being able to negotiate for insurance,” he says.
Unveiling plans of the association to assist in the insurance procedure for members, CAMASEJ president highlighted that a good negotiation will enable media houses pay the premium for workers at a lower cost. This he adds is “because we are going to negotiate for the entire journalism core”.
“We are trying to have an integrated approach where the association is doing something where the media houses are doing something, where government is doing something, so that together we see to it that journalists are better insured,” Viban Jude adds.
While measures are still being taken to better the lives and working environment of pressmen, especially those working in the conflict-stricken North West and South West regions, a majority of them are left to fate as the deadly battle rages on.