Public and Private Press in Cameroon

VIII. The private press

It is estimated that there are now thirty private newspapers in Cameroon. No one is certain about this figure, as private papers frequently appear and vanish after only one issue. Some appear every few weeks, others every few months. Since the publication authorization fee of 500,000 CFA ($2,000) was eliminated in December, everyone, it seems, wants to try his hand at running a newspaper. But multiple obstacles still exist. The one most widely complained about is censorship, which will be discussed further on. In the financial area, banks are reluctant to give loans to editors of private papers, since issues can easily be seized by the censor, resulting in loss of income. Nearly all private papers are printed at SOPECAM, home of the Tribune, as it is the best printing plant in the country. There the government sets the prices for printing and newsprint. There are no daily private papers due to the prohibitive cost, so most appear weekly, bi-weekly, or erratically.

There is also the problem of finding something interesting to print. Newspaper staffs are small, sometimes consisting of only six or seven employees, most part-time, and a host of freelance contributors. This situation contributes to the lack of fact-based information in papers. Such articles require time, research, and money, while an opinion piece requires only a critical mind, pen, and paper. Rumors are sometimes substituted for facts and then are elaborated on and exaggerated further until the line between fact and opinion becomes entirely blurred. Emmanuel Noumbissie Ngankam, an editor for Le Messager, calls this reliance on opinion a weakness of the young Cameroonian press.

One must remember that we work under very difficult conditions. Our means of investigation are extremely limited. What this leads us to do sometimes is to give much more analysis than information.[24]
Even the most widely read private newspaper is unable to support a staff of news-gathering correspondents, so it cannot compete with the national coverage of the Tribune, despite the latter's spottiness. There is no equivalent to the Associated Press service in the United States, which is a major source of non-local stories for smaller newspapers. It is unlikely that the government would look kindly upon the formation of a private cooperative national news service. While the large number of newspapers is a step towards wider coverage, the concentration of papers in Yaoundé and Douala, as well as the underdeveloped and expensive communication system, cause the private press to miss many potential stories. As a result, the public press is still the primary source of information, and the private press is left to analyze events that have been covered in the public press several days before. While legally more government information is now available to journalists, the public press still gets the scoops first, as fed to them by the administration. Ebonkem of the Tribune is proud of this area of domination:
The private press is essentially a press of commentary, of opinion. If you want to know daily what is happening in Cameroon, you can't do anything but read Cameroon Tribune.[25]
A lack of professionalism also marks the private press. Great importance is placed on education in Cameroon, and journalism is believed to be a trade that requires training to be done correctly. Most private press writers do what they can in their spare time, with mixed results. As Kebila Fokum of Le Messager says, "We have drop-outs from school who pass for journalists. That is a legitimate criticism." But anyone trained at ESSTIC, the nation's journalism school, is likely to search out a high-paying, stable job at Cameroon Tribune or in business.

A product of this lack of professionalism and solid factual reporting is sensationalism, which has always been a sure way to sell papers. It is the headline-covered front pages of papers that are their main selling tool, so they often bear outrageous headlines that have little to do with the articles inside. Opinion pieces are commonly fiery rants that reach such intensity in the final paragraphs that they apparently threaten public order and have to be censored. These pieces sell papers because there is still something shocking about being able to print harsh criticism of the government in Cameroon. The public gets the thrill of the taboo, and the censored parts only make readers curious as to what horribly offensive things merited such treatment. However, this kind of journalism lacks credibility and originality, and it is not likely to hold the public's interest for very long.

As mentioned before, attempts at objectivity are not as much a priority in Cameroon as in, say, the United States. No paper really tries to cover all that goes on in the country, so the choice of what to cover is an ideological one. Since the omnipresent state media cover largely government-oriented events, the private press is content to just fill in the gaps and correct disinformation. As one private journalist writes, "As the so-called 'official' press organs do not criticize government action, it is evident that the so-called 'independent' press fills the void. What the opposition has to do, the private press does, without always being a press of the opposition."[26] This coverage of alternative viewpoints has directly benefited the opposition parties, who without adequate access to public media have had trouble presenting their identities and their platforms. Noumbissie comments:

In a pluralist regime people have to know the proposals of others. We know what the CPDM does. We don't have to interview them to find out what they say.[27]
Surprisingly, considering the country's history, no prominent paper is the mouthpiece of any one opposition party. While some parties such as the UPC receive more coverage than others, this seems to be a result of them having more popular support. Endorsements of political parties by newspapers have not yet begun but may occur when (or if) elections approach and parties begin to establish more distinct identities in order to break away from the now-homogeneous mass of parties.

In its rebellious stance, the private press in general avoids positions where it would appear to be agreeing with the government. While not exactly endorsing violent demonstrations, it has not gone out of its way to condemn violence and vandalism as the public press has. The private press received criticism for not condemning University students who burned to death a fellow student, rumored to be a government informant. But while CRTV news carried a lengthy report on the student's funeral, it has failed to release the names of any other students killed during demonstrations by government forces. The blindness of bias affects both sides.

This is not to say that the editorial line of every private paper is to be critical of the government. On the contrary, there are papers that actually support the administration and the CPDM party, but they are definitely the exception rather than the rule. The most prominent of these is Le Patriote, a professional-looking publication that is most likely financed by the CPDM. (It is widely believed that Jacques Fame Ndongo, director of the journalism school and presidential press secretary, also has a large part in its production, although his name does not appear in it.) The paper features harsh criticisms of opposition members and private papers, the sort of mudslinging that is common in private papers but that the Tribune would never stoop to, and its pages never show a trace of censorship.

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