Public and Private Press in Cameroon

This page is part of a research paper on Cameroon's media that was written in 1991. More information and a table of contents here.

VI. Cameroon Tribune

Cameroon Tribune, then, is the only state news outlet that faces direct competition and criticism from other similar media. So is there a place for a "newspaper of the state" in a pluralistic media society?

The Tribune at times seems to ignore the existence of a private press. Private papers engage in constant debate among themselves and frequently comment on articles in rival papers, including the Tribune. But even in articles condemning the private press for irresponsibility, CT never mentions specific articles and rarely mentions the names of other papers. In the past few months the paper has undergone changes that seem to show an awareness of a broader range of information outside that which had been traditionally accepted by the state. Whether this change is a result of pressure from other papers and new political parties, or if it is part of Biya's liberalization plan, is unclear.

The Tribune appears daily in French and twice weekly in English, and is based in a large office building next to the SOPECAM printing plant in Yaoundé. What the Tribune does best is to serve as a direct channel for government opinions and statements. If the President makes a rare public statement or gives an interview, every last word is certain to be in the next morning's paper, accompanied by several photos of the President. The respect given to the words of the Head of State is so great that they are likely to be reviewed for days, even weeks, afterwards. One such interview was said to have "left indelible prints on the sands of our current democratization."[11]

Some coverage of this kind does have a place in a society as state-centered as Cameroon. But when CT tries to interpret events on its own or comment on them, problems invariably arise. Any government decree is sure to merit several favorable articles, if not a special edition. For example, in April 1991 taxi drivers threatened to strike if the government did not lower gas prices. When those prices dropped considerably just before the drivers' deadline, CT responded with an article explaining how the move reflected the government's "undeniable political courage" in responding to the needs of its citizens. Three days later it featured a 4-page special supplement explaining in detail the reasons for the drop and again praising the government's wise decision.[12] No mention was ever made of the threat of a strike. While not an actual manipulation of information, such articles show careful political posturing. This kind of coverage, peppered with buzzwords such as 'order,' 'responsibility,' and 'maturity,' may appeal to supporters of the government. But it has put the paper in an awkward position when the government changes its mind, says Tata.

At the time when it [CT] should have been evolving it was devolving instead... It has suffered enormous humiliations by supporting government positions that were then reversed.[13]
One glaring example of this was the lengthy period in 1990 when Biya repeatedly dismissed calls for multi-party politics, saying this was not the best path for Cameroon to take. The Tribune wrote glowing editorials praising this decision until December when a multi-party system suddenly became a reality. CT was then obliged to reverse its position and praise the wise advance towards further democracy.

Another problem has been the paper's conservative approach to covering non-governmental activity. Fomenky Ebonkem, assistant editor-in-chief of the Tribune's English edition, responded to criticism of his paper's minimal coverage of an important opposition demonstration by saying that, after all, "it was an illegal march," and that they had only covered it at all "out of professional curiosity."[14] Thus events are only events if they are legal ones, and if not, they are considered to be of no importance. After recent violent demonstrations, especially at the University, the paper has not given death tolls, although it is public knowledge that deaths occurred. This may be because the paper has no access to such sensitive information from the government and has little incentive to find out what actually happened on its own. When it does cover riots the paper tends to skim over details and emphasize the return to normalcy. Following one particularly violent day the English front-page headline read, "After Demonstrations, All For Calm, Dialogue," and featured a large photo of Biya from a television interview he had given several days before.[15]

However, that same issue showed signs of the changes that have been creeping into the Tribune over the past few months. On page three were pictures of three opposition party leaders along with their reactions to the President's interview. John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front asked, "Does Mr. Biya know that the students [at the university] are being looted, raped, and tortured [by government troops]? That Mr. Biya ignored the burning issues is indeed disturbing." Two of the leaders expressed their desires for a national conference.

Governmental and presidential news and positions still dominate page one, and the CPDM continues to take up more than its share of the inside pages. But in the last three months the Tribune has not only acknowledged that an opposition exists, but has even printed a few articles on demonstrations and opposition activities with little or no editorial comment. The television news has also exhibited a movement towards further openness and freedom of debate. On May 14 it presented a special program of interviews with University students who explained why they were so dissatisfied with the institution and with the government.

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