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.

VII. The Tribune's future -- Some opinions

The motivations behind these recent changes are hard to decipher. President Biya has frequently spoken of his desire for greater transparency and a code of conduct for the public media. From his television interview on April 11:

I have told you that we are going to give directives for a new official media code to be put into action in order to permit a greater transparency. Cameroonians must be able to have knowledge of what happens, and the media must also have the means to cover events that they judge useful for an informal opinion, without letting themselves be dominated by opposition parties.[16]
Biya also noted the obstacles to this objectivity, namely a tendency towards the type of politicized journalism inherited from the French:
Look at the great countries which have gone before us on the path to democracy. As soon as a party formerly of the opposition takes power, what does it do? It changes everybody, including the journalists! That is to say...that everyone has to some extent 'his' journalists.[17]
Given the partisan nature of government positions, can a paper run by civil servants ever by truly objective, as much as any other paper can? Should the Tribune even attempt change or should it simply retain its role as the journal of the state?

Joseph-Charles Doumba, Director General of the Tribune, predictably echoes Biya's sentiments. His paper at times carries the slogan, "Cameroon Changes, Cameroon Tribune Also," because

...we want to tell readers that the new society will be reflected by Cameroon Tribune, that it will express the feelings of all Cameroonians. Every government needs something to promote its opinions...[but] now the Tribune has to search out every kind of information, not just governmental... We are not the paper of the CPDM, we are the paper of the state.[18]
By taking this approach the Tribune would ideally become a bias-free comprehensive national paper on the American model, making it an even stranger creature in Cameroon's media zoo. Jacques Fame Ndongo, director of the national journalism school ESSTIC and also the President's press secretary, describes this ideal.
I think that the paper of the state is not truly of the state, because it is a paper that represents the whole of the population. A private paper necessarily reflects a partisan ideology. It's the person who finances the paper who orients it. The state belongs to everyone... It is an objectivity in principle, because we are in a transition period. It is not yet the true transparence that one aspires to. That will change progressively.[19]
In contrast, sociology professor Valentin Nga Ndongo feels that if the Tribune wants a role in the new pluralism, it should give up trying to be a paper for all, since "he who has many friends has none."
It is in Cameroon Tribune's best interest to keep the audience it has... If it wants to keep its audience it should be more critical of the opposition. A paper should have a clear ideology.[20]
Many say that the Tribune will have to change in some way to avoid being ignored. Or perhaps the fault is with the unpatriotic public, as one of the paper's own writers admitted in an August 1990 article entitled "Reconciling the Irreconcilable:"
Has the public press in Cameroon become divorced from its own public? One can seriously ask the question at a time when in our kiosks readers snatch up Le Monde, Newsweek, and recently Le Messager, La Détente...without a glance at the latest issue of Cameroon Tribune within arms reach... The public does not approve of the choice and treatment of information in the official media, forgetting that it has a precise mission-- to describe and explain the politics and the action of the government.[21]
Pressure for change in another direction is coming from the administration. Minister of Information and Culture Augustin Kontchou Kouomegni visited the paper on May 13 to give the Tribune some "cardinal guidelines," mentioning further transparency but also "the need to promote a good image of Cameroon, the regime, and its leaders." He also blamed the Tribune for being unagressive in its search for news and, surprisingly, not strong enough in its support of the government.
As a public media, I understand your desire to serve the general interest, but you must also understand that every nation gives its destiny to a small group of persons to govern; it is this group that incarnates the aspirations of the people, so you must always be at its service.[22]
There are also those who would not be sad to see the paper fade away entirely, as it has become a "white elephant," as Hilary Kebila Fokum, an editor for Le Messager calls it.

The 1990 "White Book" by a group of anonymous opposition intellectuals had this prediction:

One could thus envisage the pure and simple disappearance of Cameroon Tribune or, what seems to us more plausible, its reorientation as an organ in the hands of free and competent journalists, open to the truth and to all currents of opinion.[23]
Which path the paper will eventually take remains to be seen, but according to Director General Doumbé, one quite symbolic change may soon take place. The portrait of Paul Biya that graces the top left corner of every issue may have its days numbered. The picture was placed there in the turbulent post-Ahidjo years and has remained largely for reasons of tradition. It has already shrunk considerably since last year, and apparently has no place at the top of the paper "for all Cameroonians" in the dawning era of pluralism.

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