Public and Private Press in Cameroon

XI. Le Messager and the censorship game

Le Messager invariably comes up in discussions about censorship, as it seems to be the paper that has most often borne the marks of the censor's pen. Freedom of expression has been one of the paper's most frequent themes. As the paper has become more widely read and respected, it has become continuously bolder in its criticisms and its challenges to the government, and this boldness has consequently won it even further respect among critics of the regime. It has become a sort of mission for the paper to point out the absurdities and injustices of the press laws, and to challenge those laws when possible.

Like every other paper Le Messager is legally required to submit copies of its page proofs before publication or to submit finished copies before distribution. If the first option is chosen, the paper is then required to eliminate sentences, paragraphs, even whole articles that cross the line of orthodoxy. On the final printed page the editors commonly do this by printing large grey boxes over the offending material, making the imprint of the censor extremely visible on the paper's tastefully organized pages. Sometimes the boxes cover the majority of the text but leave tops or bottoms of the lines of text sticking out, making it possible for a careful reader to discern what is underneath. Larger deleted sections are often left completely blank or are sometimes filled with a quote: "Censorship in Cameroon is more symbolic than real. --Paris, April 4 1991."

The paper plays other games in an attempt to lessen the amount of material that gets censored. Papers have the option to submit their proofs to a local prefecture instead of the office of MINAT in Yaoundé. This provision is intended to allow papers outside of Yaoundé easier access to a censor, but Le Messager uses it in another way. Often government officials outside of Yaoundé have less of an idea of what goes on in the capital and of what material is potentially damaging, and will let things get through that would have been censored at MINAT. Le Messager submits proofs to such an office, gets the proper authorization to print, and then rushes to SOPECAM in Yaoundé to get the paper published. "For us it's a game, because it allows us to point out the absurd character of the press law," says Noumbissie.

Without specific guidelines, the decisions of the censors are sometimes rather arbitrary. They will cross out an inflammatory headline, while skipping over a particularly scathing article on the next page. Often at MINAT the French edition of the paper gets censored much more heavily than the English edition. Apparently the administration in Francophone Yaoundé is not very good with English. "It appears that these men make no effort in the area of bilingualism. There are articles that are particularly violent against the administration which pass only because the censor doesn't understand much," says Noumbissie. At times however the Minister of Territorial Administration has required the paper to translate every article in its English edition so he can read and censor it himself.

The most widely-read part of Le Messager after page one is very likely the weekly feature on page 3, "Muyenga and Takala on the Lane." This takes the form of a discussion between two friends who meet on the street: Takala (meaning "wanderer" in the Bamiléké language), a naive CPDM member and believer of government propaganda, and Muyenga ("wanderer" in the Douala language), who is fully up to date on the latest happenings in the country and fills in his friend about what is really going on. It is a clever, entertaining device that is persuasive in its arguments, as Muyenga tries to convince Takala that his government has been lying to him. The column is anonymous so the paper as a whole bears responsibility for what appears in it.

The information Muyenga reveals strains credibility at times, especially since the piece is by nature a casual conversation and thus does not list sources. For example, one issue claimed that helicopters financed by the World Bank for use in fighting glaucoma were instead being used to drop tear gas on demonstrators. But the paper claims that it does in fact have documentation for these statements and that they are not simply the latest products of the rumor mill. Some of the information was once contained in more detailed articles that were cut by the censor. By burying this information in a dialogue (and bending the rules of journalism) the paper hopes to give the news another chance of getting past the censor and out to the public. This effort is not always successful, as this page regularly bears the censor's gray boxes.

All of these strategies are attempts to stretch the limits of the censor and the press laws. But Le Messager frequently challenges the censor more directly. It is legal for editors to submit already printed copies of their paper before distributing it. With this "all-or-nothing" approach, editors hope that they will not be forced to throw out their entire issue because of an offensive paragraph on page six. This psychological game is a risk for them but also an act of defiance, a refusal to submit to the censor's pen.

This strategy does not always work. But Fokum says that seizure of an issue is not necessarily a total loss, since "every time they seize the paper we become more popular." At times when a particularly important article is sure to be censored, the staff may put some token issues on the kiosks to be seized. Then they begin distribution of the remaining copies underground, through a network of friends. If devoted readers see that the paper has not made it to the newsstand this week, they may try to procure a copy some other way, with the incentive that something particularly important must have caused the ban. This situation occurred in April when the paper tried to print the names of remaining political prisoners-- an article which contradicted the administration's statement that there were no such things.

In January 1991, the government took a more direct approach to censorship. Le Messager received international attention when contributor Celestin Monga and director of publication Pius Njawe were arrested for insulting the President. Monga, in an emotional open letter to the President entitled "False Democracy," criticized Biya's recent speech to the National Assembly, calling it "outrageously condescending, paternalist, and pretentious." He blamed Biya for the sad state of the country and its government.

It is therefore urgent, Mr. President, that politics cease to be a permanent circus and become instead the means of expression of the popular will. It will be thus necessary to stop the crude and simplistic slogans which crowd page one of Cameroon Tribune every day... and to let those speak who have interesting things to say-- and I can assure you, there are many in this country.[36]
The December 27, 1990 issue containing the letter was submitted to the censor's office, and editors waited the prescribed four hours before distributing it. Soon after, it was seized by police. The pair's arrest sparked large demonstrations in Douala and elsewhere, and seven protestors died in clashes with police in the northern city of Garoua. Monga was detained for three days, found guilty, and given a six-month suspended sentence. As of this writing, Monga has appealed the decision and is awaiting a response (see Appendix). The popular outpouring in the paper's support foreshadowed public demonstrations to come and demonstrated for the first time the power the private press can have.

As of April 30 1991 Le Messager had taken the bold step of pretending to ignore the censor entirely and distributing their issues as they please. This gamble could potentially force the paper out of business if issues continue to be seized. But Biya's government has weakened to the point where it cannot always have its way. Seizures will only add to the public support behind the paper and make the government's claims of commitment to democracy look like a farce. A simple shutdown of Le Messager or detention of its staff would be sure to prompt huge rallies in Douala, an embarrassment the government can ill afford. Allowing distribution to continue, however, will encourage other papers to follow the leader, and MINAT would soon have a lot less work to do. It remains to be seen how the government will react to this escalation in the censorship battle.

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