Public and Private Press in Cameroon

IX. Le Messager

The best-known private newspaper in Cameroon is Le Messager. It is constantly a topic of discussion among those who cherish it as well as those who hate it. In an analysis of the paper's name, Nga Ndongo described it as "a newspaper that...lacks neither pretensions nor ambitions, and which poses itself as a type of prophet or messiah of the Cameroonian press."[28]

While this characterization is somewhat exaggerated, Le Messager does hold a special position on the media scene. Part of this is due to its longevity by Cameroonian standards. The paper was started by Pius Njawe, now its Director of Publication, in 1979. Njawe's description of Le Messager is as follows:

...An independent newspaper of constructive criticism, which has devoted itself to working for the promotion of a Cameroonian society of rights, justice, liberty, and equality, and under this heading it encourages all initiatives with the intention of promoting these values.[29]
The paper has won public respect through its professional approach. Its appearance is more tasteful and reserved than the majority of independent papers, and its front-page headlines are in modest lower-case type. Inside the articles are largely restricted to political topics and contain no outrageous faits divers. It is the kind of newspaper a man in a business suit would not be ashamed to pick up. Despite the appearance, the paper's political criticisms are just as harsh as those of any other paper. At times they are even more damaging, as they tend to avoid the enraged rants found elsewhere and adhere to more coherent organized arguments.

At the top of the front page, Le Messager calls itself "a paper of information and debate." Here as elsewhere in the private press, debate takes precedence. It is a debate though that largely leaves out the government's perspective, presumably because those viewpoints are readily available in the public media. The 'debate' is among professors, intellectuals, opposition party leaders, and writers who discuss the proper course for Cameroon and the issues of the day. Le Messager prints lengthy interviews with such people. While the paper has recently tried its hand at more investigative articles and has come up with some of the private press' most impressive scoops, these efforts have been largely muffled by the censor.

Le Messager employs a total of 15 people, including editorial and production departments. It is put together in a series of second-story rooms in two buildings on either side of a Douala street. There are some staff reporters, but the paper is dependent on freelance writers to fill its pages. Prominent friends of the paper also submit articles for publication without expecting compensation.

The paper appears weekly in both French and English editions, and as at the Tribune each edition has an autonomous editorial staff. There are several reasons for this division. The two editions are tailored for their respective audiences, as the anglophone minority in the former British area is much more politicized and more opposed in general to the Biya regime, so a different kind of criticism is called for. Articles of more local interest for French and English areas are included in each, and the more fact-based English journalistic tradition is reflected in that edition. But audiences for the two editions overlap due to the level of bilingualism in the country and, since both editions are distributed nationwide, many people buy both weekly. For this reason articles are never simply translated from one edition to the other.

Le Messager and the private press in general have often been accused of strictly and uniformly endorsing the side of the opposition, or of being members of the opposition themselves. Noumbissie, an editor of the French edition, claims that the paper's stance is not that simple.

When President Biya took power in 1982, when he announced his political program, we approved of it, and we continue to approve of his original program as it was announced in 1982. What is unfortunate is that between what he has promised and what he does concretely, there is a real gap... We would never adopt a position only to provoke those in power.[30]
The paper has also faced accusations of bias towards certain political parties, or of promoting the interests of the unpopular Bamiléké tribe, to which several of its staff members belong. However there seems little concrete evidence to verify these claims. It is true that the Bamilékés in general have been harshly critical of the Bulus in power, but so have members of every other tribe, and it seems presumptuous to simplify the debate to the level of tribalism. The number of Bamilékés on the staff can be explained by the friendships and collaborations that form more easily within a tribe, and not by some conspiracy theory. The contents of the paper also do not reflect discernible biases towards a particular party or tribe.

Noumbissie calls the tribal allegations "stupidity" and adds that Messager editors "all have political sensibilities. But at the level of the paper, we could never become a propaganda organ for some party."

Njawe adds: "Le Messager defines itself as an independent paper, independent of political power, independent of political parties, independent of pressure groups."

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