Journalists Caught in the Crossfire: Walking a Tight Rope Near Hell
By Colbert Gwain
Since the eruption of the prolonged seven-year conflict in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions in 2016, journalists on the ground have found themselves walking a tightrope, with hell lurking just one door away. Unlike the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the dispute primarily revolves around land, the conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions encompasses both territorial claims and the welfare of its inhabitants. This intricate situation poses significant challenges for journalists striving to maintain professionalism, fairness, balance, and objectivity in their reporting, especially as both sides adamantly believe history is on their side.
Meet Akumbom Elvis McCarthy, a dedicated journalist living and working in Bamenda, the epicenter of this escalating existential conflict. One Friday morning, after concluding his weekly talk show on Ndefcam radio—an influential private radio station challenging conventional thinking—he decides to take a leisurely stroll from his Nkwen neighborhood towards the bustling Bamenda Central Business District.
On his way, he inadvertently stumbles upon a confrontation between Cameroon policemen and transporters at Sonac Street, Bamenda’s main transportation hub. Driven by journalistic reflexes, he begins documenting the scene with his camera. Suddenly, plainclothes security personnel materialize from the shadows and forcibly escort him into a waiting car. Before he knows it, he finds himself whisked away to the Gendarmerie Legion at the Bamenda Upstation Hill. The incident on Sonac Street, as it turns out, was merely a pretext for McCarthy’s abduction. He languished in detention for an agonizing seven months, only to be released following the discontinuation of baseless charges by and a presidential pardon by Cameroon’s long-serving President, Paul Biya.
Reflecting on his ordeal, McCarthy recounts, “It wasn’t until two weeks into my arbitrary arrest and detention, during my encounter with the military court’s State Prosecutor, that I learned why I had been targeted. I had naively believed my crime was merely filming the police scene, but I soon discovered that I had been under surveillance for months. The Sonac Street incident was just an excuse.”
According to McCarthy, the charges levied against him were entirely fabricated to suppress his honest reporting, which had ruffled the feathers of numerous government officials accustomed to his frankness.
McCarthy’s situation, though arduous, had one silver lining—he was detained in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Region, where he had access to his family, colleagues, friends, and legal support. Tim Finian, his senior colleague and Publisher/Editor of the bimonthly publication Life Time, was not as fortunate.
After a long day at work overseeing the newspaper’s production and distribution, Finian intended to relax with friends and colleagues near the Regional Customs service at Sonac Street.While savoring a refreshing drink, he received a phone call from someone claiming to be an acquaintance, inquiring about a future order for the newspaper. Hastily downing his drink, Finian informed his companions that he would return in a moment. That moment turned into a year of uncertainty as he was promptly seized upon stepping out, bundled into a waiting Hilux vehicle, and transported to Yaoundé, the capital city. Neither his family nor anyone else knew his whereabouts until the following day when he found himself at the State Defense Department (SED) and was finally allowed to make a phone call home. Throughout the night, his family had frantically searched for him, unaware of his situation. Finian’s alleged crime? Publishing a story in a previous edition that hinted at government forces being involved in the killing of suspected Anglophone activists, an act that the separatists deemed sympathetic to their cause. Finian suspects that influential figures in the Northwest region, whom he had previously exposed in his reports, orchestrated his abduction in an attempt to silence him permanently.
In this conflict, journalists face threats not only from state actors but also from non-state actors (NSAs), specifically the separatist fighters operating in the region. Macmillan Ambe, the former President of the Northwest branch of the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists (CAMASEJ), spent over 72 hours in captivity at the hands of these fighters solely because of his profession. The activists accuse journalists of insufficient support for their fight for independence from mainland Cameroon. Frederick Takang, a French-language reporter for BBC Africa, narrowly escaped being kidnapped by the fighters, who labeled him a collaborator due to his residence in Bamenda.
The battleground has shifted from physical conflict to the realm of media. Rather than fighting a conventional war, both sides are now engaging in a war of narratives. Proponents of the separatist movement, aspiring to create the state of “Ambazonia,” believe that journalists must adopt a militant stance or risk being labeled as enablers. On the other hand, government officials quickly label journalists as sympathizers of the separatists if their reporting fails to align with the government’s terminology.
Journalists living and working in the English-speaking regions find themselves criticized by separatist fighters and activists abroad, often accused of being enablers for not adopting the separatists’ preferred terminology. Simultaneously, they face scathing criticism from government circles when they refer to separatist fighters as “freedom fighters” instead of “terrorists.” Simply by impartially attributing senseless killings, village destruction, and civilian torture to government forces, a journalist can be branded as an “Ambazonian journalist” by the government. Similarly, the separatist fighters and their supporters attack journalists who point out the abductions for ransom, rape, and recruitment of child soldiers perpetuated by the separatists.
Journalists attempting to report objectively in this conflict face accusations of bias from both sides. They are castigated by the government for allegedly favoring the separatists when highlighting the government’s lackluster efforts in the conflict zone. Simultaneously, separatist fighters and their supporters target journalists who refer to the regions in conflict as the Northwest and Southwest instead of the “occupied territories.” Journalists are expected to portray the Cameroon Armed Forces as “Forces of Occupation” and administrative officers in the English-speaking regions as “colonial masters.” Furthermore, any government action to contain the conflict is framed as “collective punishment,” military operations become “political assassinations,” and pressure on the population is described as the “torture of civilians by the French-financed army.” Conversely, separatist fighters and their supporters abroad expect journalists covering the conflict to depict any violent actions against the population or the military as a legitimate resistance against subjugation or acts of self-defense.
Amidst this precarious environment, journalists in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon find themselves treated with suspicion and hostility by both sides. Despite their commitment to independence, objectivity, and delivering the closest approximation of the truth, they are consistently labeled as biased. Consequently, they live on the precipice of danger, never knowing if the next door they approach will lead to hellish consequences in the hands of either the government or separatist fighters.
As Nji Ignatius, the president of the Northwest chapter of the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union (CJTU), aptly notes, “When government officials and Ambazonian activists remind you that continuing to pursue balanced and objective reporting could result in your fate mirroring that of Samuel Wazizi or Anye Ndeh Soh, it is evident they are willing to go to any lengths to silence journalists who do not conform.” Samuel Wazizi, a journalist from Buea, died in military detention four years ago, accused of collaborating with separatist fighters. His family has yet to receive his body for burial – four years on. Similarly, Anye Ndeh Soh, 27, a journalist based in Bamenda, was killed by separatist fighters last May 7, 2023.
Cameroon, despite having one of the richest media landscapes in Africa, remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The precarious and hostile environment in which journalists operate is a grave concern, as highlighted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its Cameroon Country profile.