Public and Private Press in Cameroon
XII. The media and the future
The future of Cameroonian journalism depends on the fate of the Biya administration. Past movements towards greater democracy such as the December press law have taken place under Biya's guidance, but recent events seem to be spinning out of government control. It is unlikely that Biya now has enough power to crack down and return to Ahidjo-like control, which would cancel hopes of further press freedom. Thus this discussion will assume that the liberalization process will continue, with or without Biya.
Continuing that process would first mean the elimination of censorship. Even the censor himself admits that it "can't exist for long. Soon there will be no more arguments to defend it." The only remaining question is how soon it will vanish. Estimates place it within a year, unless the private press forces MINAT's hand sooner. It is also likely that the passage of time will see many of the "new wave" crop of newspapers disappear, and the remaining papers build on consistency, reliability, and public respect. Le Messager is sure to be among them.
If the government does in fact give in to opposition demands for a national conference, the word "opposition" will no longer carry the weight it once did. The common malady of "defiance of the government as editorial line" will have to be cured in the private press, and further diversity of opinion tolerated. Hopefully the reliance on opinion pieces can also be reduced, a necessary step to maintaining the current public interest in newspapers. As Fame Ndongo says, "When you spend your time giving your opinions, people are going to be bored after two, three, or four years." An American-style straight news orientation is not necessarily desirable in Cameroon's situation, which is in need of forums of public debate. But some challenge to the government's domination of the information sector must be mounted. Ideally Cameroon could use a daily fact-based private newspaper and a private news-gathering association that could compete with that of Cameroon Tribune. This would be a giant step towards a truly informed public.
Censorship, while attempting to discourage political opposition, has actually made it more glamorous and exciting, thus actually encouraging papers to concentrate on political discussions and criticisms. With censorship removed and the political turmoil of the moment calmed, the press may see that there is much more to Cameroon than politics. Recent private press forays into the investigation field are a good sign. This press has the capability to be an active force for change instead of merely a reactionary voice against those in power.
The paper Challenge Hebdo came up with a first for the private press in April when it published a public opinion poll rating Biya's ministers. Unfortunately the embarrassing results prompted the government to begin work on a bill forbidding papers from printing such poll results without prior approval of a special government bureau of polls. But the use of polls, a mainstay of the press worldwide, is crucial to the democratic process. With a poll a newspaper could discuss the basis for Biya's assurances that, if asked, the majority of Cameroonians would say that they do not want a national conference. When a reporter once asked Biya if the government would undertake such a poll he responded that such things are expensive and "Cameroon does not have money to throw out the windows."
Another aid to the power of the press would be a national association of journalists. The private press has some level of organization and has met twice to issue statements to the government complaining about its treatment by the censor and the military. But the ideal organization of this kind would also include journalists of the public press, who have not been allowed to form any kind of group in the past. Njawe says that in all of Africa he has not seen such a strict division as exists in Cameroon between public and private journalists, who should form one body as they face many of the same issues.
If the Tribune is successful and sincere in its reorientation process, perhaps its journalists will have more in common with their compatriots in the private press, and their paper will become a voice to be reckoned with in the future. Even if it does not succeed, it is not likely to disappear, at least during this administration, but it could be relegated to the bottom rack of the kiosk and the desks of public servants.
Cameroon's press is changing at a speed that requires journalists to run to catch up. In the process, they find that their own newspapers no longer serve the audiences or the purposes they once did, and must constantly reinvent themselves. If political progress allows the current vitality of the press to blossom, Cameroon may find itself with one of the most exciting and valuable presses in existence. Cameroun change, la presse du Cameroun aussi.
Appendix: Interview with Celestin Monga, opposition writer
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