Increased Threats to Life for Journalists on the frontlines of Conflict in Cameroon

Story, Colbert Gwain in Bamenda

Since the outbreak of the seven year prolonged conflict in the two English-Speaking regions of Cameroon in 2016, journalists covering it have not only been walking a tied robe but have literally also only been just one door away from hell.

Far from the trappings of the aged-old Israeli/Palestinian conflict where the dispute was just over land, that in the Cameroon Anglophone regions is both over land and the people who inhabit it, This further complicates matters for the media men and women desirous of professionally doing their job (with fairness, balance and objectivity),  especially as both sides to the conflict are confident history is on their side.

Akumbom Elvis McCarthy is a journalist living and working in Bamenda, the epicenter of the escalating deadly existentialist conflict. One fine Friday morning after his weekly morning talkshow programs over Ndefcam radio (one of Bamenda city’s leading private radio stations that prides itself on being the “Radio of the New Generation” and that seeks to challenge the boundaries of conventional thinking), he decides to relax by strolling away from his Nkwen neighborhood and toward Bamenda Central Business District.

Midway to his destination, he comes across an altercation between Cameroon Policemen and transporters along Bamenda’s main transportation hub, Sonac Street. With the reflex of every good journalist, he decides to document the scene.  As he rolls out his camera, plain clothes security men emerge from behind and bundle him into a waiting car. He is whisked off to the Gendarmerie Legion at the Bamenda Upstation Hill. Manu an onlooker who knew him concludes it’s just for a few questions and he would be back on radio the next day to update his teeming audience on what transpired as well as usual news on happenings around the world. Fat chance. Akumbom Elvis Mccarthy would not be heard or seen for days, weeks and months. And not until after seven months of detention at the Bamenda maximum security prison where the discontinuance of charges against him are ordered by Cameroon’s longest serving President, Paul Biya.

“It was after two weeks of my arbitrary arrest and detention and only when I was presented to the military court’s State Prosecutor,  that I was accused and charged for “colluding and conniving with separatist fighters and sympathizing with tertorists”, that I knew why I was picked up in the first place. All along, I had ignorantly thought my crime was about filming the police scene. Far from it. Only then did it dawn on me that I was being surveilled for months and the Sonac street incident was just a pretext”, Elvis Mccarthy recounts to this reporter after his release.

“All the charges against me were totally false and cocked up just to keep me out of the way. It would appear many government officials were not comfortable with my straight and frank reporting about news happening events around the city”, he opines.

Mccarthy might have been lucky to have  been arrested and detained in Bamenda, headquarters of the North West Region of Cameroon, where he could have easy access to family members, colleagues, friends and his legal team. Not so for Tim Finian, his senior colleague and Publisher/Editor of Life Time, a bimonthly published in Bamenda. After a hard day’s job of publishing and supervising the dispatching of the newspaper to various distribution channels, Tim Finian had barely made time to cool down with colleagues and friends at a joint near the Regional Customs service at Sonac street that evening.

“I had just taken a cold refreshing ship of my favorite drink when a supposed acquaintance rang my phone and pretended he wanted to be give me a robbing order for my next edition. I quickly cocked back my drink and told my friends and colleagues I would be back in a second. That second was to be a year as immediately I stepped out towards the appointment point, I was ceased and thrown into a waiting brown new hilux bound for Yaounde (Cameroon’s capital city). Neither my nursing wife and children,  not anyone knew my whereabouts. It was only the next day that I found myself at the State Defense Department (SED), that I was given a phone to call home and tell my family where I was. Before then, the family had looked everywhere for me all night”, Tim recalls vividly.

Tim’s crime?; “I was accused of publishing a story in a previous edition, insinuating that government forces were killing suspected Anglophone activists and dumping in water, and that by this act, I was sympathizing with separates fighters. But, I honestly think some North West elites whom I have unmaskef for their dubious activities I’m my previous reports were behind the machinations. They wanted me to die. Thank God, I benefitted from a Presidential claimant, one year after”, Tim avers.

It could have been comprehensible if journalists who have the natural tendency to align with the poor and powerless against the powerful, we’re to be hunted only by state actors. Since the conflict in the two English Speaking regions of Cameroon morphed into an armed conflict,  the non-state actors (NSA’s), have increasingly turned their heat against the media men and women living and working in the conflict zones.

Macmillan Ambe is immediate past President of the North West branch of the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists, CAMASEJ, a leading Cameroonian professional media ethics organization. He spent over 72 hours in the separatist fighters captivity for the simple fact that he was a journalist and the activists claimed journalists were not too supportive of their “fight” for independence from the mainland Republic of Cameroon. In addition to the many other journalists that have been kidnapped by the separatist fighters in the course of the conflict,  Frederick Takang, a French language reporter with BBC Africa service, miraculously escaped being kidnapped by the fighters on grounds he was a blackleg, a tacit reference being made to people who live in bamenda and are being perceived to be collaborating with central government.

As both sides to the conflict remain stock to their guns, the battlefield has since shifted to the media. Rather than fighting a terror or separation war, both sides have since engaged in fighting a media war. In the ongoing conflict,  proponents of separation form a new state called “Ambazonia” believe that any journalist worth his/her salt must be militant about their position or be considered an enabler. Government officials on their part, consider journalists as sympathizers to the separatists the moment they do not align with the government’s terminology.

Journalists living and working in the two English Speaking regions are constantly being rebuked by separatist fighters and activists abroad and sometimes considered enablers for not referring to the North West and South West regions of Cameroon as “Northern and Southern Zones of Ambazonia”. On the other hand,  they come under scathing criticism from government circles each time they refer to the separatist fighters engaging government forces in battle in the conflict zone as “freedom fighters” rather than “terrorists”. One could simply be considered an “Ambazonian journalist” within government circles, for apportioning the senseless killings and razing down of whole villages in the conflict zone, to government forces.
As a journalist,  one is not safe if one points out the fact that separatist fighters have been engaged in kidnapping for ransom, rape, maiming and the recruitment of China soldiers.

In the ongoing conflict,  journalists who try to do their work fairly are accused by either side of unfairly favouring the other. They are accused by government of being pro-independentists when they criticize government lacklustre attitude at carrying out projects in the conflict zone. The separatist fighters and their supporters would come after journalists if they continue to refer to the zone in conflict as the North West and the South West, instead of “occupied territories”. They would want the journalist to refer to the Cameroon Armed Forces as “Forces of Occupation”.

Journalists covering the conflict in the British former Southern Cameroons are expected to make the words “La Republique” becomes synonymous with “occupier”and the North West and South West regions of Cameroon synonymous with the “occupied”. The Administrative Officers in the two English Speaking regions should be seen as “colonial mastets”, while the security measures taken by government to contain the conflict should be viewed as “collective punishment” measures. Military operations in the Anglophone regions should be seen simply as “political assassinations”, while physical pressure put on the population should be seen as the torture of civilians by the French-financed army.

On the other hand,  the separatist fighters and their sponsors abroad would want journalists covering the conflict in the two regions to report any of their violent actions towards the population and the military simply as the resistance of a people against subjugation or actions in self-defense.

As stated earlier, journalists covering the conflict in the two English Speaking regions face the challenge of maintaining objectivity in a dispute where both sides claim history is on their side.

“You can put it down as a general rule that any criticism of government or separatists handling of the conflict would be violently attacked and even rebuked by leaders on both sides”, says Choves Loh, senior journalist and author of the renowned book: “Ugly Journalism” who, on wanting to project himself throughout the conflict period as an apostle journalistic fairness, balance and objectivity, has missed being kidnapped severally by separatist fighters and at the same time being chastised by government officials for not being supportive of their actions.

Given the complex and complicated nature of the conflict,  journalists living and working in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, who are supposed to be objective and independent,  delivering reporting that is close to the “real” truth as humanly possible,  are unfortunately treated by both sides as being biased. For that reason,  they are always one door away from hell, in either government hands or those of separatist fighters.

“The fact that each time a visiting government official or an Ambazonian activist reminds you that if you continue claiming to do balance and objective reporting you would end up like Samuel Wazizi or Anye Ndeh Soh is a sure sign that they can go to any extent to eliminate journalists who are not toeing the line”, Nji Ignatius,  North West chapter president of the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union, CJTU.

Samuel Wazizi was a Buea-based journalist who died in detention four years ago, after having been arrested by the military and accused of colluding and conniving with separatist fighters. To date, his body is still to be handed over to the family for burial and closure. On his part, Anye Ndeh Soh is a Bamenda-based journalist, who was cut down in his prime two months ago, by separatist fighters.

‘Although Cameroon has one of the richest media landscapes in Africa, it is one of the continent’s most dangerous countries for journalists, who operate in a hostile and precarious environment”, Reporters Without Borders, RSF, says in its Cameroon Country profile.

Colbert Gwain is a freelance investigative journalist,  author,  digital rights immigrant, radio host and multiple award-winning content creator @The Colbert Factor

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