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Summonses and suspensions threaten media environment

People gather to read newspapers with election headlines in Yaounde, 10 October 2011.
People gather to read newspapers with election headlines in Yaounde, 10 October 2011.

AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the growing intransigence of the National Communication Council (CNC), Cameroon's media regulator, and its president, Joseph Befe Ateba.

“The CNC has taken a clearly tougher line towards journalists and media in the past two months, which is reflected in the number of summonses it has issued and the suspensions it has ordered,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“It has acted with questionable good faith by repeatedly summoning journalists on dates when it knows they are not in the capital, and by raising matters during hearings that were not mentioned in the summons. We urge it not to exceed its powers by using threats, pressure and censorship.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “We also ask the CNC to be more transparent about the way it chooses the cases in which it intervenes and the way it deliberates, in order to dispel suspicion that it is acting arbitrarily.”

Benjamin Zebaze, publisher of the daily Ouest-Littoral, and Guibaï Gatama, publisher of the weekly L'œil du Sahel, were summoned to CNC headquarters in the capital, Yaoundé, on 28 October to respond to accusations of “breaches of professional ethics” brought by Befe Ateba himself and the head of the criminal investigation police, Martin Mbarga Nguele.

The complaint against Zebaze concerned a 10 October article about the CNC's ban on reporting election trends. The complaint against Gatama, brought by the head of the criminal investigation police, concerned a 15 October article about clashes with the police at the Cameroun-Nigeria border.

Neither Zebaze nor Gatama were in Yaoundé that day and both had to be represented by an employee.

In the weeks leading to the 30 September parliamentary elections, the CNC had started using a harsher tone.

On 14 September, the CNC circulated an election coverage guide that listed all the sanctions to which journalists and media would be exposed if they were found guilty of violating professional ethics. “I will be very intransigent,” Befe Ateba said.

The CNC previously imposed harsh sanctions on several media and journalists on 5 September for their alleged “failure to respect the provisions of the law on social communication.”

The victims included the Chronicle and Guardian Post newspapers and their publishers, the L'Epervier and Radio Sky One, and Radio Satellite journalist Peguy Meyong. The harshest sanction was reserved for Radio Djacom FM, which was banned from broadcasting altogether.

Provision for the creation of a National Communication Council was included in a December 1990 law on social communication (Law No. 90/052), which defined it as a financially autonomous entity for media regulation and consultation.

The council did not however become fully operational until earlier this year, following decrees reorganizing it and appointing its members. The internal procedures governing how it operates remain unclear.

Cameroon is ranked 120th out of 178 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

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