A light breakfast of an omelette and a cup of black coffee eaten on the trot: Little did radio France Internationale correspondent Ahmed Abba know it would be his last meal as a free man.
Abba had a 10 am assignment on July 30, 2015 – a security briefing in Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North region, that the governor had convened in response to attacks by the extremist group Boko Haram.
The Far North was reeling from three suicide bombings that month that left at least 34 people dead.
Although such attacks occurred almost daily in Boko Haram’s base in Northeastern Nigeria‚ they were rare in neighbouring countries.
The bombings came a few days before a two-day official visit by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to Cameroon to strengthen cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Abba had spent most of the previous day interviewing Nigerian refugees who had fled the extremist group.
As Abba left the governor’s security meeting‚ two police officers arrested him.
He was charged under Cameroon’s anti-terror law and‚ after nearly two years in custody‚ convicted by a military tribunal of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts.”
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His lawyer says Abba is appealing the sentence.
The government says that the anti-terror law President Paul Biya enacted in December 2014 is part of its effort to counter Boko Haram‚ which has carried out kidnappings as well as attacks in Cameroon.
However‚ the Committee to Protect Journalists @cpjafrica found that authorities are using the law against journalists such as Abba who report on the militants‚ and others who have reported on unrest in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions or are critical of Biya’s administration.
In addition to detaining journalists‚ authorities have banned news outlets deemed sympathetic to the Anglophone protesters‚ shut down internet in regions experiencing unrest‚ and prevented outside observers‚ including CPJ‚ from accessing the country by delaying the visa process.
Journalists say that the risk of arrest or closure has led to an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship – an unhealthy climate considering that elections are scheduled for next year.
According to the editor of one English-language publication‚ the government conflates news coverage of militants or demonstrators with praise‚ and journalists don’t know what they can and cannot report safely‚ so they err on the side of caution.
“Publications are publishing blind because the government‚ out of frustration‚ can decide that any published report is trying to favor the agitators‚” said the editor‚ who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“We are not told what the difference is about reporting the facts or acclaiming what is happening and we therefore run the risk of contravening the anti-terrorism law.”
Biya‚ who was appointed prime minister in 1975‚ assumed the presidency in 1982. He is one of the world’s longest-serving elected leaders. The parliament revised the constitution in 2008 to remove presidential term limits.
In addition to the Boko Haram insurgency‚ his administration for the past year has been grappling with clashes in the Anglophone regions between police and demonstrators‚ as lawyers‚ teachers‚ and other groups went on strike over claims they are being marginalized.
The country’s language divide and calls for greater autonomy – in some cases‚ secession – is a hangover from the early days of independence‚ when regions that were under British colonial rule unified with those governed by France.
Residents in the English-speaking region say that not enough official documents are translated clearly into English‚ and that the predominantly French-speaking government appoints teachers and judges to their region who speak little to no English.
The turmoil in Cameroon‚ and Biya’s increasingly authoritarian response‚ risk more political instability and humanitarian crises in a region that has already suffered years of war.
Cameroon shares a border with Chad‚ the Republic of Congo‚ and the Central African Republic‚ among other countries.
With elections on the horizon‚ many in Cameroon rightfully fear a heightened and more violent crackdown‚” said Jeffrey Smith‚ executive director of Vanguard Africa‚ a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for good governance and fair elections in Africa.
“Biya is essentially drawing upon age-old lessons that authoritarians have long relied on to maintain power: kill dissent‚ sometimes literally‚ and openly target your critics so as to create a broader chilling effect in the country.”
The President’s Office did not respond to CPJ’s written request for comment.
Cameroon has a diverse media environment‚ with at least 600 newspapers‚ 30 radio stations‚ 20 television stations‚ and 15 news websites in operation‚ according to the regulatory National Communication Council. But that does not mean information flows freely.
“Honestly‚ in Cameroon now‚ most of us in the private media are free to report only what the government wishes to see‚” said a newspaper proprietor who like many asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“There is an atmosphere of fear. You don’t report about the issue of federalism [or] all those issues that are considered to be unfriendly to the regime – even if they are true.”
Cameroon’s anti-terror law is a powerful tool of fear‚ according to opposition parties‚ the media‚ trade unions‚ and civil society and human rights organizations.
The law’s provisions are criticized as overly broad with easy potential for abuse of political opponents and the right to freedom of expression.
The law has a maximum penalty of the death sentence‚ and allows authorities to detain indefinitely those accused of terrorism.
It also provides for prosecution in military court‚ contravening Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights‚ which guarantees individuals a fair‚ independent‚ and public hearing of any criminal charges against them‚ and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights‚ which Cameroon ratified in 1989.
The African Charter states‚ “Military courts should not in any circumstances whatsoever have jurisdiction over civilians.” Civilians tried by a military tribunal are often denied their rights to a fair trial and appeals process.
Elie Smith‚ a journalist working for Canal 2 English‚ a privately owned satellite TV station based in Douala‚ said Abba’s terror conviction was “a tool to intimidate other journalists”.
The Biya administration wants to avoid a situation like in Nigeria where journalists covered Boko Haram and the government was unable to “control the narrative‚” Smith said.
He noted that journalists wanting to report from the front lines in the fight against Boko Haram need authorisation from the ministries of defense and communication and must be embedded.
In addition to Abba‚ CPJ was aware of at least four other journalists who faced charges under the 2014 anti-terror law for their reporting: Atia Tilarious Azohnwi‚ political editor of The Sun; Hans Achomba‚ a documentary filmmaker; and Tim Finnian‚ publisher and editor of the weekly newspaper‚ Life Time‚ were all detained in custody for several months until a presidential decree on August 30‚ 2017 secured their release.
The decree also ended criminal proceedings against Jean-Claude Agbortem of online magazine Camer Veritas‚ who was on bail on accusations of inciting terrorism. All of them faced trial before a military court and‚ if convicted‚ they would have faced the death penalty.
CPJ is investigating several other cases‚ including Thomas Awah Junior‚ publisher of the monthly magazine Ahem Messenger‚ who was arrested on January 2 in Bamenda‚ and Fonja Hanson‚ editor of the privately owned Cameroon Report and the chief executive of the Cameroon Broadcasting Service‚ arrested in Bamenda on July 28‚ to determine if those arrests are directly related to journalism. Amos Fofung‚ bureau chief for The Guardian Post‚ was freed on August 5 without charge‚ after being detained for nearly six months.
Journalists detained under the anti-terror law face harsh treatment while awaiting trial. According to details shared with CPJ about Abba’s March 24 testimony before the military tribunal‚ and people familiar with his case who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity‚ Abba was detained incommunicado for at least three months after his arrest.
Members of the intelligence agency beat him with machetes and sticks‚ and walked on his back in their boots. He also initially faced the death penalty.
The journalist’s lawyer‚ Charles Tchoungang told the military court that Abba – who CPJ will honour with its 2017 International Press Freedom Award – was beaten by guards who tried to force him to reveal his sources.
In his testimony at the tribunal in the Cameroonian capital‚ Yaoundé‚ Abba recounted how he was kept handcuffed and at times naked‚ during questioning and his imprisonment. The journalist said his legs were shackled and when he was transported via plane to the capital‚ he was muzzled.
Peter Essoka‚ president of Cameroon’s National Communication Council – the media regulator whose members are appointed by Biya – denies that Abba’s imprisonment is related to his journalism.
In a statement released when Abba was sentenced in April‚ RFI director Cécile Mégie said the French government-funded station had provided “irrefutable evidence” that Abba did not condone terrorism in his reporting. When contacted for comment for this report‚ Mégie directed CPJ to the broadcaster’s statement.
France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the French Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.
The documentary filmmaker Achomba was also treated harshly after his arrest on January 23‚ his wife‚ Lilian Shiya‚ told CPJ. When during questioning police discovered he had worked in South Africa‚ which has a large Cameroonian diaspora pushing for more autonomy‚ they accused him of covering riots in the Northwestern region to damage Cameroon’s international image.
Shiya said that when she first visited Achomba in custody‚ his feet were swollen and he could hardly walk. Shiya said her husband later told her that police used batons to beat him on the soles of his feet‚ walked over his stomach and groin‚ and threatened to cut off his fingers. “They were making comments about him getting married and told him he would not see me anymore‚” she told CPJ.
The president’s office and the official government spokesperson did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment about the treatment of journalists in custody.