Public and Private Press in Cameroon

IV. The press scene -- An overview

These conflicts and political debates provide a never-ending source of inspiration for journalists of the free press-- inspiration but not necessarily information, as the raw material for this press is usually opinion instead of facts. While investigative reporting has begun to appear, the majority of articles are attempts at persuasion on various issues, condemnations of the government, interviews with opposition leaders, and so on. This is partly a product of the colonial tradition of the newspaper as propaganda tool, but also derives from the more opinion-oriented tradition of French journalism. The ideal newspaper in Cameroon is not one that claims to provide a comprehensive survey of events in an unbiased manner, as in the United States. Instead the ideal paper is one that gets its message across. Papers based in the Anglophone area frequently contain more factual reporting, but most papers make little attempt to hide their ideological orientation, even in "news" articles. Front pages are frequently dominated by loaded headlines such as, "Paul BIYA: Can we have confidence in him?"[6]

In this field of frank opinion and debate moderated by the censor, Cameroon Tribune (referred to simply as CT) is an oddity. The French version is the only daily paper in the country. This factor, combined with its proximity to the government, makes it the first paper to break news such as the appointment of a new prime minister. This constantly leaves the private press in the position of reacting days later to government decisions. CT is therefore useful as a source for specifically governmental information, but it is not content to be just that. In its coverage (or non-coverage) of other events such as opposition demonstrations or political rallies, it often comes up with quite a different account than the independent press, making it difficult for the reader to know whom to believe. At the same time it spares no paper printing photos of recent CPDM rallies. Opinion pieces are numerous, frequently occupying all of page two. But what distinguishes the Tribune most from private papers is its sometimes subtle treatment of information with the goal of improving the image of the CPDM government, a stance which contradicts its claim to be the national newspaper for all Cameroonians. This situation has changed somewhat since the recent start of multi-party politics, as will be discussed later.

Despite its different role, CT has the same tabloid format as every other paper. Roving street vendors and news kiosks sell them all side by side regardless of ideology. But who is on the buying end? CT is understandably more popular with civil servants, and in a government-heavy nation such as Cameroon there are plenty of those. Others buy it because of its timely coverage of government activity. But the paper has had trouble maintaining public interest due to the existence of the more lively and sensational private press.

The audience for newspapers in Cameroon is admittedly a proportionately small one. They are easily available only in urban areas, especially Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, the largest city and home of much of the private press. This leaves out most rural Cameroonians who comprise between 60% and 80% of the population. It is also unlikely that most villagers would be interested in papers that discuss only politics and events in the cities. Illiteracy also reduces the audience, as does the cost of 200 CFA (80 cents) for a 16-page paper.

The audience that remains is not, however, only a highly educated, wealthy elite. The crowds in front of the kiosks dispel that idea. In recent months the press seems to have captured the interest of a wide range of the urban public, from university students to taximen to gendarmes, and it is the main means by which opposition parties communicate to the masses. Some observers, such as Professor Mentam Tata at the University of Yaoundé journalism school, believe this popularity is due to the novelty of such a wide selection of papers and their increasingly harsh criticism of the government.

We have a reading public which is not yet tempered. They are very easily fascinated, and interested in what is sensational, especially that which ridicules the government.[7]
It is thus not clear how long this fascination will hold out. But the enthusiasm for multi-party politics and public demonstrations points to an increasing politicization of the people. Under Ahidjo, and for a long while after him, Cameroonians were reluctant to discuss politics at all, even in their own homes, for fear of spies. Now in the course of reading papers and in daily discussions they are being asked to make political choices for themselves.

A study by Valentin Nga Ndongo, Professor of Sociology at the University of Yaoundé, compared Spring 1988 issues of the private papers Le Combattant and Le Messager. [8] At that time he identified two different genres in the private press: papers such as Le Messager which were almost wholly political and thus read by an educated bourgeois élite, and those such as Le Combattant which contained shocking stories of violence and sex directed at a less educated, mass audience. Since that study, Le Combattant, while still frequently sensational, has transformed itself into an almost entirely political and current events paper, printing photos of illegal demonstrations and burning cars, while purely escapist papers have disappeared from the market. This seems to indicate a widening of the political arena to include less wealthy and less educated Cameroonians, who had previously simply left the politicians to do as they pleased. Cameroon Tribune, apparently aware of this demographic shift in the paper-buying public, has attempted to attract the masses by sensationalizing itself at times-- as in a March 26, 1991 news brief headlined "Pig Chops Off Pa Petro's Genitals."[9]

It is a time of rapid history-making change in Cameroon, and like any history this is being reflected and recorded in its newspapers. The public and private press are changing too, but each faces different challenges and different obstacles.

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