Public and Private Press in Cameroon

V. The public media

In Cameroon as in many developing nations, the state has its hand in almost everything. It is only logical then that the government should add a media wing to its monolithic bureaucracy. And after independence, censorship created a huge gap in the information sector that the state stepped in to fill. Just as state sugar, coffee, and cocoa industries were established, a news industry was set up. The state also saw the possibility that informing its citizens 'correctly' could be a potential aid to development. In Biya's words:

We mean to affirm our conviction that a well-informed citizen is necessarily better aware of the realities of his environment, more conscious of the stakes of national development, better advised of his choices, more responsible in his attitudes, and more apt to fulfill his duties in regards to the nation.[10]
The regime, however, is concerned with controlling this informational process to protect the nation's interests but also to protect its own. It recognizes the threat that can be posed by the free circulation of information and the open expression of public opinion, both to fragile national unity and to its own grip on power. In this case the ideal situation for the state is to be the sole source and controller of information. This concept, which Ahidjo tried to put into effect, is a direct descendant of colonial ideas about how those in power should handle information. When the government created Cameroon Tribune in 1974 it was not the only newspaper, but censorship of all other papers prevented conflicting information from reaching the public.

Although the December 1990 "Rights and Liberties" laws legalized private ownership of television and radio stations, such things remained out of the financial and technological reach of citizens. The state-run Cameroon Radio and Television Corporation (CRTV) continued to hold a monopoly on broadcasting within the country as of May 1991.

Radio is certainly the most 'mass' form of mass communication in Cameroon. It is the main source of information for the rural population and requires only comprehension of one of the colonial languages to be understood. There are also broadcasts in tribal languages such as Ewondo and Bassa. Radio penetrates more thoroughly than newspapers ever could, as radios are cheaply available and can be used anywhere.

Television began in 1985 and is still a novelty. During the one and only state channel's limited broadcast hours, it commands the near-constant attention of anyone with access to a set. The evening newscasts are religiously watched and discussed. Many viewers watch both French and English versions of the news in their entirety. But CRTV has until recently been reluctant to give air time to opposition parties or demonstrations, leaving this immensely powerful medium at the disposition of the ruling party.

Despite the overwhelming presence of the state and its opinions in the information sector, other sources do exist. The monopoly is challenged in four areas. First, several foreign radio services can be received in Cameroon, including the BBC, Radio France Internationale, and the French-sponsored Africa No. 1. These services have correspondents in Cameroon whose Western-style 'objective' reports often contradict those of CRTV. Cameroonians frequently turn to these stations for uncensored accounts of what is happening in their own country. Second, foreign magazines and newspapers are available in the cities, the most influential of these being Jeune Afrique Economie, a slick Paris-based magazine which criticizes Cameroon's government quite openly. While under the law these publications could be censored, their high price ($8 for JAE) limits their accessibility. Third is the well-established network of informal communication developed over the years-- photocopied tracts passed from hand to hand and, of course, the rumors that are a veritable industry in Cameroon. Fourth and most important, the private press manages frequently to shake the credibility of the government media despite censorship, although it does have its own problems with credibility.

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