Active Behind The Storm,Voices Seeking Solutions Admist The Tempest!
Which press organization do you work for and who authorized you to take snap shots of this building? Not giving me any room to explain, he forcefully took away the camera I was holding. When I tried to inquire what was wrong, he gave me a furious glance and told me that women do not exchange words with him, much less from criminals like myself. He made a few steps backwards while dialing a number on his mobile phone. A few minutes later, a police jeep carrying three other very angry police officers parked in front of us. After taking away my mobile phone, they asked me to come with them to their station. I sat in the back of the the vehicle too frightened to talk. I was taking snap shots of women in public offices to illustrate an article I was writing about working class women to be published in a local paper for which I was freelancing. The intent of the article was to highlight the economic benefits of encouraging women to work out of the domestic milieu. Unfortunately for me, it happened to be at a time when a private newspaper had just published an article criticizing the filthy and dilapidated nature of government buildings in Cameroon`s economic capital.
When I got to the station, it was noon. I was taken straight to the police commissioner who addressed me angrily for a couple of minutes accusing journalists of inciting violence amongst the citizens by always being critical of the government. He promised to use me as an example to my other colleagues. I spent 6 hours without food and water in a tiny dark room without a window or furniture. I was forced to sit on the bare floor as I wondered what my fate was going to be in the hands of these angry people. At 6 pm, I was taken out of the room to meet one of my friends who work for the government radio. She had been alerted by some Good Samaritan that I was there. With a smile of assurance, Eli communicated to me that all was going to be okay. I was finally released at about 7 30 pm, after pleading seriously with the police commissioner. Upon our departure we were warned to stop talking carelessly about the government or be ready to receive worse treatment. Though I was so frightened, I knew for sure that silence was never going to be an option for me.
I have never stopped pondering about a solution to the harsh treatment pressmen receive in my country. I was not surprised to learn that Cameroon`s press freedom is amongst the worst in the world. Freedom House`s recent index ranks the Cameroon Press 143rd out of 195 countries worldwide and is considered ‘’not free’’. The multiplicity of privately owned media organizations in the country is no guarantee of a free press environment. A recent classification by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) places Cameroon as the second worst African country for journalists. Criminal and libel laws are used by government officials to molest members of the press who dare to criticize the government. Intolerance to objective and critical reporting on the management of public affairs, the criminalization of press offenses and the use of Draconian communication laws are the weapons used by government authorities to veil their malpractices.
As I lay in bed that night, the burden I felt for the voiceless intensified; I was afraid of being jailed or losing my life, but I just could not convince myself that the solution to this problem was silence. It is just so inevitable to talk about the plight of women in Cameroon without criticizing the government`s non -chalance, so far as issues related to human rights are concerned. The world must know about the plight of Cameroonians, and this can happen only if journalists take it as their responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless.
No matter how dangerous it may be, there is hope in exposing difficulties. From that day I vowed never to write any article that is not solution oriented and to use the Internet more than ever before to speak out for the voiceless. It is just part and parcel of me to speak out for the weak, when I sense injustice. This appears to be the reason for my existence. I have gotten myself into trouble many times for speaking out, as well as many problems have also been solved by this attitude.
Three years before my most recent experience, I was forced by police officers to drink from a gutter full of water mixed with urine . I was passing by a student residential area when students were on strike and was required to identify myself to the police before going my way. When they saw in my identity card that I was a journalist, they accused me of inciting the students to riot and began harassing me. First I was asked to sit on the ground on the main road and then one of the police officers asked me to carry water using my hands from a nearby gutter which was stinking terribly of urine and drink. When I tried to resist they threatened to flog me. The sight of their batons sent cold shivers through my spine. I was forced to drink the water, after which they asked me to leave the area with immediate effect! Thank God I never fell ill, but the thought of that experience gave me constant nausea for about a month. Being a journalist in the real sense of the word in Cameroon is like playing with the tail of a lion. Anything can happen at any time.
The death of Germaine Cyrille Ngota editor of one of the country`s weekly publications who died early 2010,has left an indelible mark on Cameroon`s press freedom reputation . His death certificate indicates that he died from lack of medical attention while in jail. Cyrille Ngota and three others were put behind bars in February 2010 for exposing a corruption saga involving a presidential advisor. Ngota`s death has remained uninvestigated despite immense pressure from the international community. An attempt for a peaceful demonstration by fellow journalists on World Press Freedom Day 2010,to protest his death led to police brutalization of journalists in Yaounde,the capital of Cameroon.
Not so obvious to many is the fact that death threats and orders for the abandonment of corruption related investigations are typical in the day to day life of journalists in Cameroon. Anonymous phone calls and text messages to journalists and their loved ones and anonymous letters slipped under the doors of their apartments and offices are some of the challenges these pressmen have to deal with. Most of the threats remain unreported for fear of the unknown by the journalists. Some of them have been forced to go on exile or seek asylum in other countries, causing painful family separations. Many journalists in Cameroon are currently facing trial for one reason or the other.Some examples are
Since Jan 2010,Alex Gustave Azebaze,an independent journalist,Thiery Ngongang of Spectrum TV,Anani Rabier Bindzi of Canal 2 International,Dr Aboya Endong- Manasse editor of a bi monthly newspaper ‘’have been facing a collective trial for their participation in a 2008 TV debate on ‘’the albatross saga’’ involving the purchase of a Boeing 727 aircraft for the President’s fleet.
Nadege Christele Bowa of ‘’le Messager ‘’ daily was arrested and detained by the gendarmerie for reporting on the 14 year detention of former Secretary general of the Presidency Titus Edzoa who resigned in 1996 and stood for presidential elections in contest with President Biya.
Charley Ndi Chia Editor- in -Chief of The Post newspaper and president of the Cameroon Union of Journalists along with Kinni Nsom head of the Yaoundé Bureau of the same newspaper are answering questions at the Bamenda high court for reporting that Fon Doh Gah Gwanyin is still free,even after receiving a 15 year jail term for the assassination of a political opponent.
These are just a few of many cases. Journalists in Cameroon operate in a very unfriendly and unfavorable legal environment, characterized by the suppression of laws that could be useful to journalists and the utilization of the penal code to criminalize media offenses. Another clear illustration of the prevailing press environment in Cameroon is the life of the late Cameroonian press freedom fighter Pius Njawe who had been to jail 126 times in his 31year journalism career.
In the face of repression, many journalists have been forced to practice self- censorship for fear of losing their lives. Objective reporting has become farfetched as they now write to please the powers that be rather than tell the truth. However a few have stood their ground and continued to report objectively. That has to an extent helped to draw the attention of the international community to irregularities in the country.
Raised in a community where the rights of women are suppressed by negative cultural values, I grew up with the quest to liberate myself and other women from the clutches of this culture. My dad nick named me ‘’Madame la journaliste’’ at the tender age of seven, because I was always asking many questions as if I was conducting an interview. My questions always centered around the injustices done to women. I was fond of asking my dad why mum was always working in the backyard while he was constantly relaxing in the living room, reading his newspaper and listening to news. When he attempted a response, each answer led to another question until he could explain no further. To avoid my questions he always gave me little story books to read aloud to him and corrected me each time I stumbled on a word. This activity inculcated in me fluency and the love for story telling at an early age.
When I got to secondary school, I was encouraged by my Literature teachers to join the journalism club. My inquisitive nature saved me from the ritual of breast ironing when I was fourteen. When my grandma introduced the idea I asked her so many questions that she realized pressing my breast with a hot stone and pestle would not prevent me from getting pregnant. (53% of girls in Cameroon have had their breasts brutally pressed or pounded with hot objects to prevent them from developing early). Since then it dawned on me that speaking out positively can be a solution to the ordeals of women in my community. I told myself that someone needs to speak out for those who cannot and I can be that person . For four years I participated actively in the journalism club occupying the post of Editor-in-Chief for two years while serving as Information Prefect of the school. I heard so many stories how journalists were locked up and how some had died mysteriously; that did not quench my love for this profession.
My unquenchable passion of speaking out for the voiceless is what led me to go for a B.Sc. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a minor in Women and Gender Studies . My dream has always been to get more education but my gender and poverty have been my bulwarks. Thank God for VOF.My love for women pushed me to volunteer with an NGO as a gender reporter for their magazine. After three months I was given my first employment employment as editor for the magazine due to my outstanding contributions.
My love for broadcasting pushed me to take a job as news anchor and reporter for a private TV station. I spoke against the government quite often and received several threats through calls and telephone messages from unknown persons. I endured two night attacks by armed men in my apartment during which I was warned and slightly brutalized. Though I have kept these experiences secret for fear of further brutalization, they have only served to fuel my passion to speak out for the oppressed.
Going freelance two years ago was not my will but has helped me develop a lot of interest in online journalism which is a safe way of speaking out in a society like mine that is unfriendly to the press. Being a Voices Of The Future(VOF) correspondent is a golden opportunity for me to learn more about using the Internet to disseminate information and fulfill my dreams to receive training about women empowerment. I shall remain active behind this storm until the women in my community experience sunny days.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.