19 February 1998


Letter from an African jail

Incident details


(WPFC/IFEX) - The following is the full text of a special report issued by
WPFC on 18 February 1998.

**Updates IFEX alerts dated 14 January 1998, 13 January 1998 and 24 December

Letter from an African jail

A leading African editor, Pius Njawe of "Le Messager" in Cameroon, was
unable to attend a 16 February meeting in Paris of the advisory committee
that annually selects the winner of the UNESCO/ Guillermo Cano World Press
Freedom Prize. The reason for his absence: an article in his newspaper had
landed him in prison. In a letter sent to WPFC's European representative,
Ronald Koven, for translation from French to English for submission to the
advisory committee, Njawe explains the reason for his absence. The letter is
a compelling testimony to the risk and sacrifice faced by journalists in
scores of countries in which reporting the news can be a crime. The text of
Njawe's letter, from Cell No. 15, Douala Central Prison, follows:

Dear Colleagues,

I wanted so much to be with you today, as in the past, to make my modest
contribution to the work of our group and to the choice of the 1998 winner
of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize. Unfortunately, the
Cameroonian authorities have ruled otherwise. On 24 December, that is to say
Christmas Eve, they took me away from my family by having me seized and
thrown in prison, then sentenced later on (13 January 1998) to two years of
incompressible imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 Central African Francs
(5,000 French Francs) for spreading false news. Among the voices that have
been raised from the four corners of the world to denounce this despotic
act, and the mockery of justice that followed, was that of our Advisory
Group. Via its President Claude Moisy, it sent me a message that reached me
all the way into my Cell No. 15 at the Central Prison in Douala. It was a
great comfort to me, as were the reactions of your respective organizations,
which are a valuable form of pressure. Please accept my gratitude, Ladies
and Gentlemen. Dear Colleagues, it seems to me that for you to represent my
cause still better, you are entitled to a full understanding of its context.
It therefore seems useful for me to outline for you the origin and the
implications of what appears to the Cameroonian people and to informed
observers to be the relentless pursuit of a man and a newspaper that have
the misfortune to be attached to their independence in a country where
everything is for sale, including the consciences of journalists.

The Facts

On 21 December 1997, the finals were played in Yaounde of the Cameroon Cup
soccer football. Originally set for November, that most important sports
event of the year was rescheduled to allow the President of the Republic,
Mr. Paul Biya, to preside, as is the tradition here. The President arrived
at the stadium twenty minutes late, disappeared from the official tribune at
half-time and only regained his seat five minutes before the end of the
match -- just enough time to award the trophy to the winners and to leave
the stadium. This astonishing and discourteous behavior prompted the
journalists of "Le Messager" to investigate the reasons for the President's
absence. That is how they came to discover that he had suffered a cardiac
incident while he was receiving some close friends in the presidential box
during the half-time break. This information was immediately reported to me.
I personally undertook the normal double-checking. Three different sources,
all of whom had witnessed the scene, confirmed it to me. Each, however,
expressed surprise that I was aware of the incident and begged me not to
publish it in the newspaper. They said that strict orders had been given to
that effect. But as a journalist I consider that a piece of news is
publishable, unless I can be shown that it would threaten people's lives.
In this given case, it was just a malaise suffered by the chief of state and
revealing it, in my opinion, represented no danger for the Cameroonian
people. So, I decided to print the news, with the usual qualifications --
and this despite all the details that we had.

The article appeared on 22 December as an exclusive in "Le Messager." It
was picked up by certain foreign colleagues. For reasons I do not
understand, the government panicked and tripped all over itself issuing
denials. First, there was a communique by the Presidential staff,
communicated to the press, except for "Le Messager", but which "Le Messager"
published nevertheless. Then, there followed an insidious press campaign in
the columns of our colleagues called to the rescue of the government in an
attempt to discredit "Le Messager" before public opinion. The purpose was to
prepare public acceptance of the punishment to be meted out for a crime that
our colleagues were denouncing. On 23 December, someone came to my office to
inform me that orders had been given for the police to arrest me. The person
suggested that I leave the city to escape arrest. Having committed no crime,
I did not consider it necessary to take flight. So, I returned to my office
on 24 December, where I was arrested at midday. After 48 hours of detention
by the judiciary police, I was transferred to the prosecutor's office, where
I was indicted for spreading false news. This followed a well-muscled
interrogation, during which I was no longer being asked for my sources, but
to prove the truth of the published article. My imprisonment order was
signed 26 December, when I was incarcerated in the Douala Central Prison, at
first as an accused person. On 13 January I was sentenced after a mockery of
a trial, during which recourse to the press law was ruled out of bounds, in
favor of the criminal code, especially its provisions punishing attempts
against state security. I was sentenced to two years in prison on the basis
of a 1962 decree against subversion, which had recently been softened in the
penal code.

A Primarily Political Case

As you can see, my conviction has nothing to do with a press law violation
in the normal sense of the term. Cameroon has just had a series of elections
-- legislative and presidential -- tainted by massive frauds. These have
consolidated the power of Mr. Biya, thus reelected for seven years in
dubious circumstances. He now has full power, but does not enjoy popular
legitimacy. For foreign investors, this is a threat to stability in a
country where they are preparing to place a great deal of money, notably to
build a pipeline to transport Chadian crude oil to the Cameroonian port of
Kribi. Given the danger of instability, the potential investors demanded as
a condition of their participation in these projects that there be a
consensus between the government and the opposition. With the help of
millions of Central African Francs, the regime has been negotiating
understandings with various political parties. Many are already under
governmental influence, as are most of the newspapers, for that matter.
Under the camouflage of a critical approach, they are in fact in the service
of the regime. There is practically no civil society. The risk is of a
facade of unity that is extremely dangerous to Cameroonian democracy.

In this context, the press is now the only real check and balance.
Unfortunately, the press today is reduced to very few truly independent
outlets. Most are governmental tools that have been set up to sow confusion.
As the real motor of a press that still dares to contradict the official
line, "Le Messager" looms in the official view as the only true obstacle to
the current negotiations among the political parties. If they were to turn
out as they are now oriented, a de facto monolithic situation would be
consecrated, under which the labor unions and human rights groups will have
been eliminated, either through blind repression or by being brought into
line. The negotiations were at first secret, and it was "Le Messager" that
brought them into the open by demanding transparency on issues about the
people's future, to make sure that the "peace of the brave" not be arranged
on the backs of the population. This forced the participants in the dialogue
to come out of the shadows. As in the electoral frauds, "Le Messager"
unveiled the traps the government had slipped into the texts about the
reform of institutions being discussed. The news article about the
President's malaise thus appeared as the perfect pretext for the government
to settle its scores with "Le Messager" and its publisher. Deliberate Confusion
From the moment of my arrest, there was an attempt to create confusion by
creating the impression that I was charged with a simple press law
violation, like others that have become growingly common in Cameroon. My
trial was even scheduled to take place at the same time as libel cases,
including one considered at the same court session during which I was
convicted on 13 January. Unlike me, my colleague came to court as a free
man, as the law provides. He was sentenced to six months in jail with an
order of immediate incarceration, but he was never imprisoned, and he
continues to write freely. A week later, another colleague accused of libel
was sentenced in a pompous trial to pay a fine of 50,000 Central African
Francs (500 French Francs) with a three-year suspended sentence.

It should be noted that, although there have been prison sentences
pronounced for journalists before and after mine, I am now the only
journalist in jail in Cameroon. It should also be noted that out of the
thirty-some court cases brought against "Le Messager" since 1990, barely
five have emanated from individuals acting as citizens, even though they
were all, in fact, government ministers or parliamentary deputies.
Practically all the other cases were initiated by the government on such
charges as insult to the President, not respecting administrative censorship
or spreading false news. This looks like deliberate harassment, if not
relentless persecution.

Prison Conditions

This is the second time within a year that I have been jailed. You will
recall that in October and November of 1996 many of you expressed support
for me when I was thrown into prison for insult to the President of the
Republic and to the members of Parliament, for having denounced an
anti-democratic constitutional plan. This time, my tormentors seem
determined to get me. Evidence of this is the terrible and humiliating
prison conditions, as well as the physical and mental cruelties which my
jailers inflict upon my family, my collaborators and me. The tone was set
upon my arrival in prison 26 December. My wife, who was late into
pregnancy, was physically abused in my presence by a prison administrator
when she brought bed linens for me. My complaint to the public prosecutor
had no effect upon this inhuman treatment. It was repeated in subsequent
visits. Thus, my wife miscarried the child on 9 January 1998. My
collaborators were subjected to the same brutal treatment in their attempts
to communicate with me. My messages are filtered by prison authorities. My
wife is allowed to bring me food once a day, but my collaborators are
practically forbidden to visit me. I must work all kinds of angles to
maintain contact with them. The same goes for my medical treatment. My
doctors were denied admittance several times. The UNESCO regional
representative in Yaounde had to wait three hours outside the prison before
finally being told that he needed an authorization from the Foreign Ministry
to see me. As for my children, they were so traumatized by the penitentiary
environment and the behavior of the prison guards, that I decided it would
be better that they stop coming to see me. I share Cell 15 with about a
hundred other prisoners: criminals convicted of murders, assassinations,
holdups, thefts, armed robberies. My treatment in prison is highly
humiliating. The objective is surely to break my morale, if I cannot be
eliminated physically. My bunkmate, for example, was the head of a gang
that had emptied out my own neighbor's house. In these conditions, my
safety is not at all assured. On 31 December 1997, for instance, a group of
death row prisoners invaded the cell, surrounded me and threatened to kill
me if I didn't feed all the prisoners in the jail. The reason they gave was
that visits to the prison that day were disorganized by the presence of
police forces trying to prevent a public demonstration for my release. I had
to use lots of diplomacy to calm people down. Violence around me is
virtually continuous. All day long, people play poker and drug themselves.
The narcotics trade is flourishing here. The result is constant fighting.
The other day, two prisoners knifed each other, inches from me. Just before,
I was nearly hit by a wooden stick with which a convict tried to beat
another inmate. I saw another prisoner knock out an accomplice of his with a
club. The victim is still hospitalized. It is not impossible for a similar
incident to be deliberately created some day to get rid of me. It is said
that, since I did not rise to the bait of various provocations to which I
was subjected early on, some people were given the job of trying to poison
my food. This seems plausible since the death row prisoners who attacked me
on 31 December wound up admitting to me that they had been incited to do so
by prison officials. Furthermore, if the government does not harbor criminal
intentions towards me, why am I being kept in such a cell, when there are
special ones for inmates who are treated with respect? While I may receive
newspapers and books, I don't have the right to write. The prison director
called me into his office to forbid it. Lift your pencil for as long as you
are in jail, he told me. So, I have stopped writing the Convict's Notebook
that I had been publishing in "Le Messager" since my
imprisonment. I now write in secret. I must get up at 3 a.m. to write by
flashlight, and I must pay off my neighbors not to turn me in. This is how I
am composing this letter for you. I will send it to my office secretly to
be typed into a computer. The only good thing is that I managed early on to
tame my surroundings, making accomplices of all the other inmates. This
displeases the prison authorities, who do all they can to isolate me. A
number of prisoners were placed in punishment cells for having been spotted
in my company. A jailed bank officer who befriended me was taken from the
"comfort" of Cell No. 18 and placed in the garbage dump of the "special
regime." Inmates whom I recruited to protect me have had their bunks
confiscated. Prison guards have been sidelined for having been suspected of
sympathizing with me. The other day, as the elected president of the
Veterans team, I was asked to make the kickoff for a prison soccer football
game. The same day, the president of the prison's sports and cultural
activities association was dismissed for not seeing to it that I not be
honored that way.

That, Dear Colleagues, is what your fellow press freedom fighter has been
experiencing since being removed from his family on 24 December. Yet, my
spirits are good, even though I do have some health problems. I have
nothing to reproach myself for, so my conscience is clear. I know that I'm
paying for my stubbornness in my struggle for the past 18 years in "Le
Messager" and organizations like the Cameroonian Press Freedom Organization
(OCALIP) and the Central African Union of Private Press Publishers (UEPAC)
to broaden democratic freedom in Cameroon and in Africa. I'm paying for
having refused to work within a political party. I'm paying for having
refused to plunge into the trough. I'm paying for having preferred my
independence to compromise. I'm paying because every choice must be paid
for. But I'm proud of my choice, and I don't regret it, because I'm
convinced that it is the best path. My only regret is that we still have so
many colleagues who think that compromise with the powers that be is the way
out. I wish you full success both in our annual meeting and in the work of
the Jury of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Prize.

Signed: Pius Njawe

Douala Central Prison, February 1998

* * *

The following is a statement by WPFC's Executive Director, Marylin Greene:

What is a news story worth? When is the truth worth suffering for? Pius
Njawe knows the price of press freedom. In this, the latest of more than 30
government attacks on him or his newspaper since 1990, it is high: Two
months in jail, with 22 to go. Daily hardship, harassment and humiliation.
Traumatized family and a miscarried baby. Untreated illness. Huge fines.
Death threats. Hunger. Editor of "Le Messager" in Douala, Cameroon, Njawe
published a report in December indicating Cameroon's President Paul Biya had
heart trouble. A crime? The government says yes, charging Njawe with
violating national security by "publishing false news." This despite
confirmation by three eyewitnesses. In previous arrests, the charge was
"insulting the president." Njawe's situation illustrates not only Cameroon
leaders' view that they should be immune to public commentary, and their
flouting of the obligation of all U.N. member states to respect the U.N.'s
1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides in Article 19
that "Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and
ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." It also demonstrates
how authoritarian officials can bend less clearly worded protections to
their own purposes, for example, provisions of the later International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- a document many incorrectly
believe will protect them -- that quickly provide exceptions under which
restricting press freedom is OK. These excuses include broadly stated
protection of reputations as well as open-ended provisions to uphold
national security, public order, public health or morals. Thus, repressive
leaders can simply pick a cover, and use it to silence the press. And they
do it -- regularly -- as shown in a new WPFC study of how principles
articulated in another supposedly democratic document, the European
Convention on Human Rights, have been applied nearly 1,200 times in 109
countries to control news. Press freedom groups, human rights organizations
and even UNESCO's Director-General, Federico Mayor, have urged President
Biya and his government to drop charges against Njawe and to embrace the
principles of press freedom in their country. The UNESCO Advisory Group on
Press Freedom, of which Njawe is a member, issued a statement in Paris
profoundly regretting his absence and deploring excessively harsh laws or
rules (that) serve, in Cameroon or elsewhere, as pretexts for suppression of
freedom of information or of any criticisms of those in power. So far, the
pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

Njawe, recipient of the World Association of Newspapers' 1993 Golden Pen of
Freedom Award, is indeed paying a price for his belief in press freedom.
Why is he willing to endure such pain? As he puts it," I'm paying for
having preferred my independence to compromise." His letter, which puts a
human face on just one of the hundreds of cases each year in which
journalists in many countries pay a stiff price for doing their jobs, poses
a question for all of us to ponder: What price would I be willing to pay to
protect this precious universal right?


World Press Freedom Committee
11690-C Sunrise Valley Dr.
Reston, VA 20191

Fax:+ 703 6206790
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