1998 – Camaroon – Pius Njawe1998
Pius Njawe – Cameroon

Pius Njawe, born in March 1957, was first arrested aged 19 for his reporting that disclosed the news that oil had been found in Cameroon. In 1979, at just 22 years old, Njawe founded his newspaper Le Messager becoming the youngest newspaper owner in the country; he’s has been fighting for press freedom in Cameroon ever since. Copies of Njawe’s publications, Le Messager and the biweekly satirical magazine Le Messager Popoli have been banned and seized on numerous occasions. It has been censored and closed down, its office equipment confiscated and its staff arrested, fined and even tortured under the regime of President Paul Biya, who has been in office for almost 28 years, and who has been accused of attempting to silence the country’s few independent papers.

Njawe has been arrested over 30 times. In November 1992, following the banning of Le Messager and after receiving threats to his life, Njawe was forced into exile to Cameroon in February 1993 and promptly founded the Cameroon Organization for Press Freedom (Ocalip) the next month. It members soon found themselves routinely arrested and imprisoned for up to two years for “defaming” officials. Many went into hiding for fear of reprisals at the hands of police and state security agents.

In late 1997 a strange incident at the Cameroonian Football Cup led to Njawe receiving one of his most severe sentences for ‘spreading false news’ about President Biya. The president had arrived to the match late and disappeared at half time, re-emerging five minutes before the end of the match, just in time to award the trophy to the winning team before promptly leaving the stadium. Journalists from Le Messager reported, that Mr. Biya had suffered a cardiac arrest during half time. Njawe claims to have triple checked the information through several sources before allowing its publication and the article appeared on 22 December. On 24 December Njawe was arrested and just three weeks later, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 CFA (about €700) for “spreading false news”.

During his ten-month imprisonment, Njawe shared a cell with more than 100 other prisoners, most of them convicted of robbery, murder and other felonies. He was pardoned by presidential decree and released in October 1998, following months of pressure from local and international press freedom organizations.

Njawe is the president of the Central Africa Press Editors’ Union and a member of the UNESCO Consultative Group on Press Freedom. He remains director of Le Messager which is now available on line www.lemessager.net
Writing Sample:

The tone was set upon my arrival in prison on 26 December. My wife, who was late into pregnancy, was physically abused in my presence by a prison administrator when she brought bedding for me. My complaint to the public prosecutor had no effect and this inhuman treatment was repeated on later visits. My wife miscarried the child on 9 January.

My collaborators were subjected to the same brutal treatment. My messages are censored by prison authorities. My wife is allowed to bring me food once a day, but my collaborators are practically forbidden to visit me. The same goes for my medical treatment [Pius Njawe suffers from diabetes]. My doctors were denied admittance several times. The UNESCO regional representative in Yaounde had to wait three hours outside the prison before being told that he needed authorisation from the Foreign Ministry to see me.

My children were so traumatised by the prison environment and the behaviour of the guards, that I decided it would be better if they stop coming to see me.

Cell 15

My treatment in prison is highly humiliating. The objective is surely to break my morale, if I cannot be eliminated physically. I share Cell 15 with about a hundred other prisoners, almost all of whom are criminals convicted of murders, assassinations, hold-ups and so on. My bunkmate, for example, was the leader of a gang that emptied out my neighbour’s house.

While I may receive newspapers and books, I am not allowed to write. I now write in secret. I must get up at 3am and write by flashlight, and I must pay off my neighbours not to turn me in. This is how I am composing this letter. I will secretly send it to my office to be typed.

I know I’m paying for my stubbornness in my struggle for the past 18 years in Le Messager and organisations such as the Cameroonian Press Freedom Organisation and the Central African Union of Private Press Publishers to broaden democratic freedom in Cameroon and Africa. I’m paying for having refused to work within a political party. I’m paying for having refused to plunge into the trough. I’m paying for having preferred my independence to compromise. I’m paying because every choice must be paid for.

From an article which first appeared in Commonwealth Press Union News < Accessed 3 February, 2010 at: http://www.developments.org.uk/articles/dont-shoot-le-messager>
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Department for International Development magazine article

Extract from The leadership challenge in Africa: Cameroon under Paul Biya

Photo from Journal Du Cameroun