World Press Freedom day celebrations are dedicated to reflections on what the role of the media should be in society. On the eve of the 2010 manifestations, the Cameroon media was bereaved as one of its members, Bibi Ngota, was allegedly tortured and abandoned to die in pretrial detention at the Kondengui Central Prison. Cameroon media was also shocked beyond rationale when the Minister of Communication, government regulator of the sector, Issa Tchiroma Bakary went out of his way to make a public statement that Bibi Ngota was HIV positive and died from opportunistic infections. Against this background, Cameroon media is in mourning and reflection on the challenges that face the sector.
Citizens cannot make sound decisions on issues put before them without the free flow of information and public opinion. This information and opinion helps them to make informed decisions during elections and on which projects to support. 2011 is a critical year in Cameroon and the media cannot allow itself to fail. They must create the atmosphere for debate and free flow of information to educate and sensitize voters.
Cameroonian voters should be given a limitless supply of information sources; newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, mailed communications and pamphlets. Hundreds of newspapers are reported as registered in Cameroon, and according to government that is an alibi for press freedom. How does the Cameroonian press provide coverage of all important local, regional, national and international developments?
The Prime Minister of Cameroon, Yang Philemon just completed an economic and image charming trip in the United States of America. The Cameroonian people are left to consume only the coverage of Cameroon Radio Television and Cameroon Tribune, both government public media. A vast majority of the bourgeoning press was left out of the trip. Of course, government media concerns are limited and will fail to report the all important trip from all perspectives. By the end of the trip few Cameroonians will be informed of the necessity of such a trip and the its fallouts.
As a committed sector to impartial and unbiased reporting of facts, the mass media, as an ideal should enable voters to make intelligent decisions. As such the media should analyze the meaning of developments, and in clearly identified columns and broadcasts, express editorial opinions supporting or opposing the decisions of public officials. In the current dispensation, the Cameroon private media has been seen as weakening government action in acting for the public good. This is because the private media has been the one reporting the various allegations on Biya’s Ill-gotten Wealth and the suits against the Head of State in the diaspora.
As to the choice between the media and the government, let us remember what Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence in America said. In 1787 he declared:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Over 200 years ago, that is what one of the founders of the American modern nation thought of the media. As a source of informed opinion, it should occupy the priority position. The Cameroon media should offer debates on public issues and interviews with persons who support or oppose specific actions. The Cameroon government has indicated, perhaps it has become its hallmark, that it is opposed to any opinion opposing its actions. In the 1980s when the economic crises started biting the country, lots of journalists of the English expression tried to debate issues in the country. They were whisked off the news programme, Cameroon Report and taken straight to the Kondengui Central Prison. The name of the programme had since been changed to Cameroon Calling but each time the spirit of Cameroon report reared its ugly head, the anchor was taken off. As such the Cameroon media lost some of its best practitioners in the English language.
Today, the Cameroon media is confronted with all sorts of problems caused by amateurs and people who barely have the tools for reporting. The 1990 communication regulations try to define what a journalist was. According to this profile, a journalist was somebody who went through a school of journalism; somebody with a postsecondary education and should have spent at least a year practicing in a media house; and thirdly if the practitioner does not have a postsecondary certificate, he should have spent at least four years in a media house. These criteria notwithstanding, there is no watchdog to screen those currently on the field.
Some government institutions and authorities have, therefore, taken advantage of this lack of regulation to impose their personal stamp on what they imagine to be against them in the media. It is in this light that the very powerful Minister of State, Secretary General at the Presidency, Laurent Esso used his position to bypass all judicial procedures to get Bibi Ngota detained. Recently, I was dragged to the Kumba High Court to answer charges proffered against me by the powerful Judge of the court. He felt defamed when I publicized one of the swindling sagas he is involved in. if I had been found within his jurisdiction, he would have detained me. My belonging to a different jurisdiction did not prevent him from crossing his judicial boundary to accost me with a summons, which I of course used as evidence of his abuse of power to petition the President of the Republic, Chair of the Higher Judicial Council.
Reporters are expected to know their rights and responsibilities and operate within the ambit of such rights. If I didn’t know my legal rights, and knew how to analyze the data collected from the Meme High Court, that legal jurisdiction would have messed me up like Bibi Ngota. Today, it is the judge running away from his shadow and resorting to arson to erase damaging evidence against him.
The treatment of information by those who gather such information leaves much to be desired. An uncle of the Cameroon media, Sam Nuvala Fonkem observed that there were lots of assumptions in the columns of our newspapers and broadcasts. His advice was never to assume, but to elucidate and clarify a news story as if the reader knows nothing at all about it. Here publishers and news editors fail to do justice to reports as they transform themselves into butchers, cutting chunks of valuable information indiscriminately. This might be an overstatement because the cutting of valuable information is premeditated.
Some publishers have personalities to protect. Every time such personalities are highlighted negatively, the story is either killed or edited in such a way that the news is killed. Sometime in 2009, a seminar on corruption held in Buea. The participant from the American embassy declared that he was ashamed to call the Honourable Rose Abunaw such because she was a disgrace. This was because she was behind the many visa scams for which Dr Fonkam Azu Simon was accused on the private media. Even though there was enough evidence to pin down Rose Abunaw as the culprit, this newspaper publisher decided that the story be censored. What about the publishers/editors who will call the culprits reported in an article to come and buy off the story?
Selling of stories to culprits might even be more profitable than selling papers on the streets. No Cameroonian paper sells 3,000 copies per edition. Cameroonians prefer to save their money for beer and other mundane concerns than buy a paper which does not articulate their anxieties and propose solutions. Government too has censored the papers by making them unaffordable to the common man. At FCFA 400 for 16 pages, most folks find it a waste of scarce resources buying a paper. Publishers, therefore, resort to unpalatable strategies to make money; smear campaigns, selling stories and blackmail.
Some news organs have simply transformed themselves into griots or praise singersfor some powerful elite. You cannot blame them as most are unable to put food on their tables nor keep their issues in school. You need to see how some news gatherers fight over food at conferences to which their news organs were never invited. such events provide them the unique opportunity to have a balance meal. They will heap food on their plates till you cannot see their faces from across the table. With many months of unpaid wages, it is enough to turn them in any direction with as little as FCFA 5,000.
Government can reverse this negative trend by throwing its weight behind the media and supporting them in every material way possible. This though runs the risk of transforming some publishers into band boys of the government dimabola chorus. In this election season, more seminars should be organized to drill reporters on reporting and the media laws. Government should be lobbied to support media house financially. This may help check some of the abuses noticed with private media corporations. The public services should also avail media houses of information.
Fon Christopher Achobang
Department of Linguistics
Faculty of Arts
University of Buea
P.O. Box 63 Buea
Expertise; International Business Translation; Literary Translation, Medical Translation; Editing; Proofreading.
P.O. Box 1095 Limbe
Tel, 237 99365954