Ambe Macmillian Awa, a broadcast and web journalist in Cameroon’s North West region is a household name. He told me journalism for him is not just a profession but a passion. To him news is meant to be reported without fear or favor.
But after he was kidnapped by armed men alleged to be separatist fighters who are fighting for the independence of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions, Ambe’s position about reporting “without fear” seems to be gradually drifting.
After he was released from captivity, he told colleagues that his kidnappers were angered because he reported about school resumption in Bamenda. And only released him after giving him serious warnings and threats.
Why it matters: Like Ambe Macmillian, many journalists in Cameroon are now sandwiched between separatist extremists and the sledge hammer of the government which before now was largely blamed for Cameroon’s poor record on press freedom ratings.
Even though press freedom has hardly been a reality since Cameroon gained its independence from France and Britain, the birth of civil protests in the two English-speaking regions has worsened the situation.
Since 2016, media practitioners have come under “fire” from government officials who clampdown on the media in an effort to control the narrative of information disseminated about the crisis.
Scores of reporters have been threatened, assaulted and jailed, forcing many on self-exile while those who chose to stay decided to “style” their reports
Separatists have now joined the ranks and are proving to be radical. A report by New York-based press advocacy organization, Committee to Protect Journalist, CPJ, remarks that separatists fighters and supporters do not only threaten journalist but launch social media campaigns calling on the boycott of media organs they consider to be reporting against their cause.
Journalists are under constant persecution for doing nothing other than their job. But many are those who believe that government’s treatment of journalists fuels attacks on watcher of democracy, broadening the crackdown on journalists in Cameroon.
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 hold that the broadcast 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 a 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 a “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.”
24 hours after his abduction, Ambe Macmillian was liberated by his abductors after a near-dead experience. 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 from reporting about school resumption in the North West region.
In a public statement after his release, the Cameroon Association of English-speaking journalists, CAMASEJ said they, (separatist fighters) “accused” Ambe of advocating for school resumption.
Throughout his abduction, the government made no public statement concerning the situation. A situation which does take many by surprise as private journalists in Cameroon are said to receive little or no protection from the state.
The fight for press freedom in Africa has for some time now being focused on Cameroon as the crackdown on journalists has drawn international condemnation from numerous organizations including; Reporter Without Borders, 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.
“Journalist Not Terrorist”
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.
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 CPJ report about press freedom in Cameroon wrote.
Journalists in their numbers have been arrested, charged, detained, threatened 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.
The body has on many occasions “threatened to suspend media organs and reporters” that report on the crisis; CPJ noted.
Covering the Anglophone crisis
In 2017, some eight Anglophone journalists were behind bars for covering civil protests in the North West and South West regions. Many have been forced 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 were dropped.
Her arrest was described by press freedom advocates as a tool to intimidate media practitioners 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 even though journalist Akumbom Elvis McCarthy continues to languish in jail as he undergoes trail for reporting military excesses in the restive English-speaking regions of Cameroon.
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 noted said threats and assaults on media practitioners are hardly investigations.
The newspaper editor who pleaded for anonymity for fear of prosecution told us that the government needs to do more to protect journalists in Cameroon. He says governments actions and treatment of journalists spurs further attacks on the practitioners.
Calls on the government to investigate the stabbing of Cameroon Web reporter Paul Chouta who was assaulted with a knife outside his home in Yaounde in January 2019 has yielded no fruits.
Many are those who believe the constant threats and attacks on journalists in Cameroon is largely due to governments negligence and ill-treatment of members of the fourth estate who often risk their lives to serve.
AMOS FOFUNG is an investigative journalist and freelance reporter. You can follow him on LinkedIn