Public and Private Press in Cameroon

X. The debate over censorship

April 4, 1991: At a short question-and-answer session with European and CRTV journalists in Paris, President Paul Biya says that "press censorship in Cameroon is more symbolic than real." His statement is repeated by the state TV, radio, and the Cameroon Tribune.

Meanwhile in Cameroon that same day, the entire Messager edition 222 of April 3 is seized by authority of the Minister of Territorial Administration.

Many copies of the issue are nevertheless distributed secretly around the country. While it is not clear what exactly excited the wrath of the censor, the edition contains an article which claims that Jacques Fame Ndongo, director of the national journalism school ESSTIC, had stolen large amounts of money from the institution.

A short time later, Fame Ndongo submits a letter to the paper in an attempt to clear his name, as he says "this issue was distributed surreptitiously in Cameroon." Papers are by law required to grant a person or institution who has been incriminated in an article the right to respond. But the editors of Le Messager refuse, saying that they do not have to allow Fame Ndongo to respond to an article that has technically never been published.[31]

This story demonstrates the confusion, the contradictions, and the inconsistency that characterize censorship in Cameroon. Censorship has been a popular subject in recent months, on the side of the government as well as in the pages of the private press. Not a paper appears without some complaint about the repression caused by the censor. The government seems unruffled by these complaints, as it has repeatedly justified censorship as a necessary measure to protect fragile national unity, and it claims the press in Cameroon is a very free one. Biya's most recent statement on the topic was made during a trip to the United States:

We are for liberty of the press, but the press has to behave responsibly... Liberty has to be founded on responsibility and love of country. And it is thus to help improve the responsibility of the press that we have continued to maintain some censorship, which is less a limitation of liberty than a means of education, because liberty of the press in Cameroon is not a long-standing tradition. But I hold that today censorship is more and more symbolic, and the laws that have been passed on this subject could well be modified towards greater liberty.[32]
It is the question of what exactly constitutes a threat to public order that causes much of the confusion over the censorship laws. The government's explanation is that the divisions in Cameroonian society of tribe, region, religion, and language make the national union a tenuous one that can be easily destroyed by rumors or slander. According to Fame Ndongo, the situation is so fragile that a journalist could easily start a civil war.
I know the private press would like to say anything it wants, but in effect that's impossible because we are a very young nation. If for example censorship is removed, someone in a newspaper could tell everyone to attack the Bamilékés...and the next day you would find 1,000 dead in the street, because people are just waiting for that.[33]
From the journalists' perspective, the problem with the law is that the interpretation of what constitutes a threat to national unity is left to the censor himself, who is a member of the Biya administration. Any critical attack on the regime can thus be interpreted as a threat to stability.

The private press includes a range of opinion on this subject. Some agree that journalists have the potential to create anarchy by publishing dangerous information. But the general feeling is that the decision of what to print and what not to print should fall on the journalists themselves and not on some "editor-of-editors" at MINAT. Noumbissie says, "I think that we at Le Messager are sufficiently responsible, and it is for that reason that sometimes we have refused to publish information that could be dangerous for the state of national unity."

The man actually responsible for carrying out the censorship laws for the past eight years is Dr. Erik Essoussie, Assistant Director of Political Affairs at MINAT. He and his staff look over all newspapers mandatorily submitted to his office and tell editors what they may print and what they may not. At the most basic level this involves going through mockups of printed pages and crossing out whatever is judged to be dangerous to public order and morality-- there are no more specific guidelines than that.

But Essoussie is not the Orwellian ogre he is often made out to be, and seems to sincerely believe that he is doing a great service for his country. He says journalists are his friends and he does his job "in a spirit of dialogue and understanding."[34] He portrays himself as a kind of benevolent father of Cameroonian journalists, and says he has often defended them to the administration as he is the one who understands them best. He credits himself with some of the improvement he has seen in the private press over the years, and says this is evidence of the dialogue between himself and journalists. In fact, he says that at times he corrected grammar and spelling mistakes in papers he was given to censor, before the number of papers and lack of time made this impossible.

Essoussie still finds a lack of professionalism and education in the private press and a tendency towards insult rather than real criticism. "If you insult a public figure, it could create tension between the people and those in power," he says. But he would like to see the day when journalists have reached a level of responsibility that would allow censorship to vanish.

Censorship at its current level, while not exactly symbolic, is most commonly viewed as a nuisance rather than a real muzzle on information. It is the principle of press freedom and the condescending attitude of the government that enrages journalists most. "Every administrator has a lesson to give journalists, but they don't want to learn from the journalists," says Fokum at Le Messager. But the loud cries of opposition to this law may create more damage to the government's image than the information it censors possibly could. As Jules Koum Koum of Le Jeune Observateur writes: "The more one corrects an infant in this country, the more it cries, simply because our system of correction, if it truly is one, does more bad than good."[35]

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