Public and Private Press in Cameroon

II. A brief history

Contemporary journalism in Cameroon is a phenomenon strongly influenced by the pattern of the nation's past. High and low points in quantity and quality of journalistic output have corresponded to periods of crisis, regime changes, and the whims of those in power.

The first "newspapers" to appear in what is now Cameroon were those produced by European religious missions in the early 1900's. Written in the native languages, they attempted to teach the norms and values of the "new civilization" being introduced to the local tribes. They also encouraged the people to respect and serve the colonial authority. There were no journalists as such; the articles were written by missionaries, local officials, or native contributors. Thus from the very beginning the Cameroonian press had as its intention not only to inform but also to persuade readers to agree with a point of view.

The French colonial period saw the emergence of the first "opposition" press in the 1920's, produced by Cameroonians themselves and challenging European domination. This press was "a means of expression, a weapon for the colonized Blacks, and in the final analysis, played a role in the integration of the dominated African masses."[1] Several obstacles faced this early press, however. First was the lack of adequate means of production and distribution, as few printing presses were in the hands of Africans. Second was the illiteracy of the majority of Cameroonians. This hindered greatly the ability of the press to integrate a mass audience and continues to hurt the effectiveness of the press today. Finally, these first manifestations of political awakening among Cameroonians provoked anger and fear on the part of the colonists, who reacted with censorship and seizures. One notable example was Mbale ("The Truth"), a paper written and printed by Cameroonians in France which intended to reveal the "hidden truth" to the Cameroonian people. This honesty did not impress colonial administrators who shut down the paper after three issues in 1929. Despite these problems, this period saw the first use of newspapers as a means of political education of the masses.

A relaxation of colonial rule allowed a wave of nationalist spirit to sweep the region in the period from 1945 to 1959, and a corresponding explosion of political propaganda in the form of 'newspapers.' Of the 71 newspapers that came and went in this period, at least 40 were attached directly to one of the 91 political parties in the country.[2] Little distinction was made in these journals between opinion and fact, and they made no attempt to hide their political biases. The writers again were not journalists but people interested in directly influencing public opinion. Tracts, hastily written and copied pieces of propaganda passed from hand to hand, also flourished in this period.

After Cameroon gained independence in 1960 the opposition press still existed but lost much of its impact. More neutral and pro-government papers appeared, notably the paper La Presse du Cameroun. The former British colony of West Cameroon was joined to the East, and the more oppressive style of government inherited from the French was imposed on that region. This created tensions, as the West had been accustomed to a more open Anglo-Saxon tradition, and its budding free press was suddenly faced with censorship from the francophone government.

Then in June 1962 the government under Ahamadou Ahidjo began tightening its hold on all opposition, including the press. No legal changes were implemented but several journalists were arrested, and what became known as the "law of silence" dampened the nation's previous enthusiasm for newspapers.

A new press law in 1966 confirmed suspicions that Ahidjo did not look kindly on those who did not agree with his administration. The text of the law, modeled on similar French laws, begins, "Liberty of the press is guaranteed throughout the territory of the Federal Republic of Cameroon," but then adds, "This liberty is exercised within the limits of the provisions of the present law." Article 11 of this law required editors to give two copies of their final proofs or their finished paper to the office of the Minister of Territorial Administration (MINAT) and the local prefect four hours before publication or distribution. MINAT had the right to censor or suspend any material of a seditious nature or anything that was considered contrary to morality. All new publications had to be authorized by MINAT before distributing their first issue. Violation of this law was punishable by fine, imprisonment, and/or seizure of printed copies. Its strictness prompted journalists to dub it "the penal code of the press."

This law was ostensibly intended to aid further unification and centralization of the country, a somewhat legitimate justification considering the tribal, religious, and language differences that divided the patched-together nation. But the law also served to silence opposition to Ahidjo's new single-party UNC government, created four months before. The number of papers dropped from 30 to 9 in just five years. No new papers appeared until 1974 when the government created a publishing house, the Societé de Presse et d'Editions du Cameroun (SOPECAM) and its newspaper, Cameroon Tribune. This "paper of the state" dutifully recorded government activity and national events, and frequently enjoyed a near-monopoly at the kiosks thanks to the harsh press law.

The remainder of the 1970's were a low point in Cameroonian journalism. Thirty or so papers appeared and disappeared, all of which supported the regime, in most cases for lack of another viable option. Most were heavy on sports and avoided politics. The replacement of Ahidjo with President Paul Biya in 1982 and the turbulent transition period that followed sparked renewed interest in political issues and journalism. But opinions vary as to whether or not this was truly a freer period for the press. Biya's democratization program, "Le Renouveau" or "New Deal," did make journalism a practical enterprise again if not always a profitable one. Many new independent papers appeared and were hailed by Biya's supporters as signs of the new democratic age. But the 1966 press law remained in effect (albeit less strictly enforced), and censorship and seizures continued to discourage unorthodox opinions.

For a couple of years after November 1982 the press was 'free,' as long as it was freedom to criticize Ahidjo and his regime. For as soon as the very [same] press attempted a more critical look at the present government and situation, the clampdown was firm, leading to far more arrests and detentions of media practitioners than were ever carried out by the previous regimes.[3]
Meanwhile the Tribune established itself as the mouthpiece of the state and Biya's ruling party, now called the Cameroonian People's Democratic Movement (CPDM).

Interpretation of more recent steps towards democratization vary as well. Opponents of the regime claim that public pressure and unrest is forcing Biya to speed up the "Renouveau" process that seemed to have gone off track after a 1984 coup attempt. Others see Biya as being truly interested in further liberalization but running into the conservative side of the CPDM party. The official government version is that all is proceeding according to Biya's carefully planned progression to true democracy.

Whatever the motivation, the National Assembly under Biya's direction passed a host of new laws in December 1990 concerning rights and liberties of the people. The most politically important of these was the return of legal multi-party politics. A new law concerning social communication, still in effect as of May 1991, was both good and bad news for the press. While reaffirming that the liberty of communication is a central pillar of democracy, the Assembly added that "this liberty of expression, more than any other, can be a great danger for democracy if it is exercised without limits."[4]

Under this law authorization is no longer required before publication of a newspaper, simply a notification of the proper authorities. In principle the law opens up access to more sources of state information, previously tightly guarded. The same system of total or partial censorship is maintained, but is limited to any material judged dangerous to public order or morality as interpreted by the authorities of MINAT. A decision by the censor can be appealed to a judge who has one month to make a decision. However, the sanctions and fines used to punish infractions of the press laws became more harsh.

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