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Cameroonian editor jailed for 'defaming' CEO of bus company

An appellate court in Cameroon should overturn the defamation conviction and jail sentence handed to a newspaper editor on Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today [28 March].

A criminal court judge in Douala, the commercial capital, sentenced Jean-Marie Tchatchouang, editor of the weekly Paroles, to two months in prison, and ordered him to pay damages of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,900) to Jean Ernest Ngallè Bibéhé, CEO of Socatur, a bus company in Douala, defense lawyer Alain Zogo told CPJ. The journalist was also fined 435,910 CFA francs (US$852), Zogo said.

On the judge's orders, Tchatchouang was jailed immediately in New Bell Prison in Douala, Emmanuel Ekouli, the head of the Association of Young Reporters of Cameroon, a local press group, told CPJ. However, under Cameroon's criminal code, defendants are eligible for bail in prison terms of less than one year, Zogo said. The defense has filed a petition requesting the journalist's release on bail, and intends to appeal the conviction, he said.

Bibéhé filed two criminal defamation lawsuits against Tchatchouang in connection with a series of articles published in Paroles in November and December 2010 that covered widely reported allegations of embezzlement and abusive labor practices against Bibéhé and his wife, Socatur's human resources manager, according to Zogo and local journalists. Bibéhé and his wife have denied the accusations.

Monday's sentence was a result of Bibéhé's second complaint. The first complaint led to a judge convicting Tchatchouang of defamation in March 2011 and sentencing him to a six-month suspended jail term in connection with different articles on the same topic. The judge also ordered Paroles to be banned. Tchatchouang appealed the sentence, and the trial will begin April 4, Zogo said. Paroles is still publishing.

"Cameroonian public figures have long used criminal defamation laws to silence their critics and Jean-Marie Tchatchouang is the most recent to be targeted," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "We call on the courts to grant him bail pending his appeal and to eventually overturn his conviction. Cases of defamation should be tried in civil, not criminal courts."

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