By Amos Fofung N
News about the abduction of journalist Ambe Macmillian Awa on February 21, 2019 in Bamenda landed another blow on press freedom efforts in Cameroon, a country which according to the 2018 World Press Freedom Index occupies the 129th position.
Local media reports state that the broadcast and web journalist was “kidnapped” by gunmen in Bamenda, chief town of the North West, region. His disappearance comes barely twenty days after the release of two other journalists, Theodore Tchopa and David Eyengue who were arrested while covering protest against electoral hold-up in Cameroon.
Ambe Macmillian Awa is the Secretary General of Cameroon Journalist Trade Union, CJTU, North West Chapter. He also serves as the North West President of Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists, Camasej. Both bodies advocate for better press freedom in Cameroon.
Reacting to the news, Fongoh Primus Ayeh, Secretary General of Camasej called on the perpetrators of such “grievous act” to release him with immediate effect.
His arrest prompted journalists in Cameroon to launch a campaign dubbed #FreeAmbeMacmillian, twitting that “Journalism is not a crime.”
Twenty-four hours after he was abducted, Ambe Macmillian was liberated by his kidnappers after a near-dead experience according to reports from Bamenda. Debriefing his colleagues at his Bamenda residence, Amba explained that he was taken away at gunpoint by pro-separatist fighters who threatened him to cease reporting about school resumption in the North West region.
In a public statement issued after his release, the Cameroon Association of English-speaking journalist, Camasej said, they (separatist fighters) “accused” Ambe of advocating for school resumption.
Throughout his abduction, the government made no public statement concerning the situation which has been described as yet another attack on the press.
Journalist Not Terrorist
The fight for press freedom in Africa has for some time now been focused on Cameroon as crackdown on journalists has drawn international condemnation from organizations including; Reporter Without Boarders, Committee to Protect Journalist, International Federation of Journalist, Free Press Unlimited and Freedom House.
They joined their voices calling for the respect of freedom of expression guaranteed by Cameroon’s constitution.
In its September 2017 report titled “Journalist Not Terrorist”, New York-based press freedom advocacy organization, Committee to Protect Journalist, CPJ, observed that “in Cameroon, anti-terror legislation is used to silence critics and suppress dissent.
Journalists and the Anglophone crisis
Since 2016 with the commencement of civil protest in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in what is today known as the Anglophone Crisis, media crackdown has taken central stage especially “as the government tried to control the narrative of information disseminated about the crisis.” A newspaper editor who didn’t want to be named told this reporter.
Journalists in their numbers have been threatened, assaulted, arrested, detained, and some forced to leave their jobs. Media organs and practitioners have suffered severe sanctions and suspension from Cameroon media watchdog, National Communication Council, NCC, whose members are all appointed by the government.
Primarily, media practitioners in Cameroon usually faced persecution mainly from the government. But the abduction of Ambe Macmillian by separatist fighters who now engaged in propaganda warfare with the government further sandwich journalists.
As of July 2017, some eight Anglophone journalists were behind bars for covering civil protest in the North West and South West regions. Though most of them were released towards the end of 2017, the crackdown continued forcing many into self-exiled for fear of persecution.
In November 2018, television presenter, Mimi Mefo Takambo who heads the English desk for privately owned Equinoxe TV was released from jail after been charged by a military court for “publishing and propagating information that infringes on the territorial integrity of the republic”.
She was arrested on November 7, 2018 and freed three days later. All charges levied against her were dropped.
Her arrest was described by press freedom advocates as a tool to intimidate reporters covering the civil unrest in Cameroon’s restive English-speaking regions.
In July of 2018, then Cameroonian Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary insisted that no journalist was detained in Cameroon due to their work, even though the superfluity of evidence proved otherwise.
The government has continued to paint Cameroonian as a great respecter of press freedom despite the fact that journalist Akumbom Elvis McCarthy continue to languish in jail.
Government’s altitude fueling attack on journalists?
Journalists in Cameroon receive very little protection from government and security forces while covering sensitive issues. A print journalist who spoke to this reporter from Buea said. He tells us that threats and assaults on media practitioners are hardly investigated.
The journalist who pleaded for anonymity for fear of prosecution told us that the government needs to do more to protect journalist in Cameroon. He says governments actions and treatment of journalists spurs further attacks on the practitioners. “It has to start from the top. In other countries, journalists are respected and allowed to do their work freely but here the situation is just pathetic,” he said.
In January 2019, a Web reporter, Paul Chouta was assaulted with a knife outside his home in Yaounde but calls on the government to open an investigation into the attack is yet to yield fruits.
Many are those who believe the constant threats and attacks on journalists in Cameroon is largely due to governments negligence and treatment of members of the fourth estate who often risk their lives to serve the public.