Cameroonian journalists are facing lethal threats and false legal charges as they pursue reporting in the midst of Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict, according to a new report on press freedom and freedom of expression submitted to the United Nations by Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, with the support of Covington & Burling LLP.
The joint submission on press freedom in Cameroon released ahead of the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva later this year marks six months since the abduction and killing of prominent Cameroonian journalist Martinez Zogo, whose mutilated body was found five days later.
The groups’ submission highlights that the killing, physical attacks, abduction, torture, and harassment of journalists by Cameroonian police, intelligence agencies, military, and non-state actors continue to have a severe chilling effect. Several journalists have been forced into exile, two journalists have died in government custody under suspicious circumstances since 2010, and, most recently, prominent journalist Martinez Zogo was murdered in January 2023. In addition, two other journalist deaths are being investigated by CPJ.
“President Paul Biya’s government routinely claims that the plethora of media outlets in the country proves that the right to media freedom is enjoyed in Cameroon, but the reality is the polar opposite as laid bare in this joint report,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator. “The arbitrary detention of journalists labeled terrorists, the killings with impunity and the widespread censorship tactics fostered by the government, must be reversed for democracy to overcome Cameroon’s protracted conflict.”
The arbitrary imprisonment of journalists coupled with incommunicado and lengthy pre-trial detention has made Cameroon the second worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa after Eritrea. Cameroon also detains journalists the longest after Eritrea. Five journalists are currently being detained there, four of whom are being held on anti-state charges in connection with the ongoing Anglophone conflict that has pitted separatists in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon against the forces of the majority French-speaking government.
The Cameroonian government uses anti-terror, anti-state, “false news” charges, and criminal defamation legislation to detain and convict journalists. It also prosecutes journalists by military tribunals rather than impartial civilian courts and consistently denies them the right to a fair trial and appeals process.
“The politically motivated detention of journalists in Cameroon is of serious concern,” said Margaux Ewen, Director of Freedom House’s Political Prisoners Initiative. “Through this submission, we remind Cameroon of its obligations under domestic and international law. We also show solidarity with the five journalists currently behind bars, who will not be forgotten.”
The Cameroonian government frequently suspends broadcasts and broadcast permissions, orders internet shutdowns, and blocks access to social media, communication platforms, and journalism offices and studios.
Cameroon is rated “Not Free” in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2023 report. The country has an overall score of 15/100, with a score of 0/4 for media freedom (since 2018). The country has consistently appeared on CPJ’s annual prison census since 2014, with press freedom and journalist safety in decline for more than a decade. The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights has documented multiple due process violations in trials of journalists reporting on the Anglophone crisis.
“This submission conclusively shows that the Cameroonian justice system continues to fail to protect journalists and other human rights defenders,” said Ginna Anderson, Associate Director of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center for Human Rights. “The significant fair trial violations that the ABA Center for Human Rights has documented show an escalating breakdown in the rule of law and the protection of fundamental freedoms. It is vital that the UN Human Rights Committee engage the government of Cameroon on the specific violations and recommendations contained in this report.”
“Through Covington’s Kurt Wimmer Media Freedom Pro Bono Initiative, our lawyers provide pro bono support on media freedom matters, seeking to protect and advance media freedom and the safety of journalists,” said Peter Lichtenbaum, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP. “Our work on the joint submission to the United Nations UPR Review process assessing Cameroon’s actions with respect to press freedom supports these objectives.”
Among the recommendations in the report, CPJ, Freedom House and the ABA urged President Paul Biya’s government to finally account for the death in custody of Samuel Wazizi, to free the journalists it has arbitrarily detained, including those falsely accused of terrorism, and to ensure that the murder of Martinez Zogo and the killing of Jean-Jacques Ola Bebe do not go unpunished. They also called for Cameroon’s overly broad anti-terror law to be reviewed and to include a public interest defense.
Cameroon will undergo its UPR in November 2023 as part of the 44th session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group in Geneva. To read the full submission, please click here.