Today, 1 May 2013, the human rights record of Cameroon will come under review for the second time under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the United Nations (UN). Last October, PEN International submitted a joint report with partner organisations the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Internet Sans Frontières (ISF) on the freedom of expression situation in Cameroon. PEN International is this week in Geneva highlighting the content of this report at the UPR sessions and conducting advocacy with governments to advance the situation of freedom of expression in Cameroon.
In the lead-up to the Universal Periodic Review, we have examined the freedom of expression situation in each of the countries PEN submitted reports on for the 16th session of the UPR – Uzbekistan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Cameroon. In the fourth and last of these instalments, we look at our UPR submission on Cameroon in light of recent events.
Freedom of Expression in Cameroon
Cameroon is bound by several international commitments to human rights. The country acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1984, the Convention Against Torture in 1986, and signed the Second Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in 2009. Cameroon is also bound, like all state parties of the United Nations, by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees freedom of expression. Freedom of the press is protected in Cameroon by Act No. 90/052 of 19 December 1990 and was amended by Act No. 96/0 of 16 January 1996.
Despite these international commitments and provisions in domestic law, Cameroon has failed to meet its obligation to protect freedom of expression. The country’s treatment of writers, musicians, and journalists raises other critical human rights issues in the country, including criminal defamation suits, pre-trial detention abuses, torture in custody, a politicized media licensing regime, a lack of access to public information, and restrictive laws and policies regarding the Internet and digital technologies.
Persecution of writers and musicians
Writer Bertrand Teyou, the author of four books, was prosecuted in November 2010 for allegedly insulting President Biya’s wife in his 2010 book La belle de la république bananière: Chantal Biya, de la rue au palais. Teyou was jailed after failing to pay 2,030,150 CFA (US$4,371) in fines imposed on 19 November at the end of a trial in which he received no legal representation. He was freed from New Bell prison in Douala on 19 April 2011 after an anonymous supporter paid his fine in full. After leaving prison, Teyou required treatment for health problems, including severe bleeding from hemorrhoids. Copies of the offending book were seized and destroyed.
Writer and politician Dieudonné Enoh Meyomesse was arrested at Yaoundé airport on 22 November 2011 on his return from a business trip to Singapore and was charged with armed robbery of gold and organising a coup. The arrest occurred after gendarmes raided Meyomesse’s house in his absence and without a search warrant. Meyomesse was accused along with three other men who had accompanied him on the trip. All four were detained incommunicado for a month in appalling conditions, during which time they were denied access to a lawyer and threatened with being shot if they did not admit to having been involved with plotting to overthrow the government and an armed robbery.
Interrogators reportedly also asked Meyomesse for substantial bribes. Fearing for their lives, he and his three co-defendants signed statements that they were not allowed to read. In December 2012 Yaoundé military court found Meyomesse and his three co-defendants guilty of armed robbery and illegal sale of gold, and sentenced the author to seven years in prison. The charges of organising a coup were dropped, while the alleged victims of the armed robbery were never presented or even named during the trial.
Meyomesse has been prevented from using the computer room in the prison where he writes his books since 5 April 2013. In addition, the computer on which he was working and saving his work while waiting to buy a compact disc to back it up has been declared out of use and removed from the room. Meyomesse had saved three of his recent texts on the computer in question, namely Poems of Hope, The Elite Against the People from 1884 to the Present Day and Cameroon, Desert of Human Rights. According to Meyomesse, his requests to meet with the computer room manager to discuss the matter and to have his subscription fees refunded have come to nothing.
Singer Lapiro de Mbanga was arrested in Mbanga City on 9 April 2008 and accused of instigating mass demonstrations which had taken place in February 2008. On 24 September 2008, Mbanga was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison and received hefty fines. According to the Media Foundation for Western Africa (MFWA), his arrest stemmed from a song he wrote entitled “Constipated Constitution” which allegedly chastised President Biya for trying to amend the constitution to allow an unlimited number of presidential terms and grant Biya immunity for acts committed during his presidency. Similar to Enoh Meyomesse, cited above, Mbanga is a member of an opposition political party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF). In 2012, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a legal opinion declaring Mbanga’s detention completely arbitrary and a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Lapiro was released from prison in September 2011 and received asylum in the U.S. in September 2012.
Criminal penalties for press offenses
Cameroon has several draconian laws that regulate the press that are both overly punitive and poorly defined. Under Article 77 of Act No. 96/0, non-compliance with regulations defined in the law as well as offenses “committed through the channel of a news outlet” are exclusively adjudicated before criminal courts.
Le Devoir editor Robert Mintya and La Nation editor Serge Sabouang were arrested and briefly detained along with Cameroon Express editor Germain “Bibi” Ngota Ngota and Bebela reporter Simon Hervé Nko’o in early February 2010 after seeking comment from Laurent Esso, Secretary General of the President’s Office, and board chairman of the state-run oil company, National Hydrocarbons Company (SNH), regarding a document purportedly implicating him in corruption. Mintya, Sabouang, and Ngota were rearrested on 26 February and charged with forging Esso’s signature in a document and using it in an attempt to discredit him. They were transferred to Kondengui Prison in the capital of Yaoundé on 10 March. Ngota died in prison on 22 April 2010, while Mintya and Sabouang were conditionally released by an act of Presidential clemency on 24 November 2010.
On 30 March 2011, Governor Enow Abraham Egbe of the northern province of Adamawa invoked “administrative detention,” an exceptional power of arrest given to local authorities under Act No. 90/054 to address emergencies, to order the imprisonment of reporter Lamissia Adoularc, a correspondent for the daily Le Jour. Adoularc was arrested by agents of the intelligence agency known as DGRE after he went into a police station to inquire about the arrests of two employees of the state-run palm oil company Pamol Plantations Limited.
Cameroonian authorities have used criminal defamation laws to silence journalists. Article 78 of Act No. 96/0 stipulates that the public prosecutor may prosecute slander and defamation at the request of an individual. Based on this provision, powerful public figures have filed criminal complaints against journalists who report critically about them. Public prosecutors have used various criminal charges (slander, defamation, blackmail) to press charges against journalists, and judges have authorized arrests and prosecutions in cases that prioritized the protection of the reputation of the plaintiff over the truthfulness of the speech in dispute.
On 25 March 2011, a panel of three magistrates in Douala convicted editor Jean-Marie Tchatchouang of the weekly Paroles of defamation and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison sentence, a fine of 185,200 CFA francs (US$390), the indefinite suspension of his newspaper, and the payment of 1 million CFA francs (US$2,100) in damages. The charges were based on a complaint of Jean Ernest Ngallè Bibéhé, CEO of Douala’s main bus company, Socatur, following Parole’s publication of letters from personnel alleging mismanagement and abuse by Bibéhé and his wife, Socatur’s human resources manager. Both denied any wrongdoing. On 25 March 2013 Tchatchouang was again convicted of defamation in a case brought by Bibéhé. The journalist was sentenced to two months in prison and ordered to pay damages of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,900) and a fine of 435,910 CFA francs (US$852). He was jailed immediately in New Bell Prison in Douala. The defence has filed a petition requesting Tchatchouang’s release on bail and has appealed the conviction.
In its May 2010 report, the UN Committee Against Torture stated it was “deeply concerned by the high number of persons held in pretrial detention” in Cameroon, a practice known as “détention provisoire”. Sections 218 and 221 of the penal code allow a judge to detain people accused of a crime up to six months, with the possible extension of a further six months. These clauses are regularly used in practice to silence critics.
Germain “Bibi” Ngota Ngota, editor of the private newspaper Cameroon Express, died on 22 April 2010 while on pre-trial detention in the Kosovo ward of Kondengui prison. Ngota, who had worked as a journalist for 15 years, launched Cameroon Express in 2003 and worked for several other publications on a freelance basis. He was reportedly well-known locally for his investigations on public corruption in the oil sector. Ngota was being held on criminal charges of falsifying a government document. His family said the journalist was suffering from high blood pressure and that his health deteriorated while in custody because of inadequate care. Ngota’s mother, Georgette Edima Ngoulou, said her son had complained of being trampled while sleeping on the floor of his cell and of exposure to rainwater. She said the prison warden “categorically rejected” a written plea for his medical evacuation, which his mother said had been endorsed by the prison doctor. A 2010 government investigation smeared Ngota’s reputation by accusing him of being HIV positive and absolved authorities of any responsibility for his death.
Torture in custody
Despite signing the United Nations Convention against Torture, the 2009 Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon noted that, while article 132 of the penal code prohibited torture, a contradictory provision in the code of procedure, article 30(2), tacitly encouraged it. In its May 2010 report, the UN Committee Against Torture accordingly expressed concern that, “in practice, detainees, from the time of their arrest, rarely benefit from the guarantees provided for in the Code of Criminal Procedure.”
Internet and Free Expression in Cameroon
Restrictive laws and policies regarding the Internet have stifled free expression in Cameroon. With the rising importance of information and communications technology (ICT), the United Nations Human Rights Committee encouraged signatories, in General comment No. 34, to take all necessary steps to foster the independence of new media and to ensure individuals access to them.
Restrictions on the Internet
Cameroon imposes severe restrictions on the Internet. According to the Joint Declaration on Free Expression and the Internet, restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet “are only acceptable if they comply with established international standards, including that they are provided for by law, and that they are necessary to protect an interest which is recognised under international law.” The UN Human Rights Committee has further clarified that any restrictions “must be ‘provided by law’…and they must conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality.” The UN Human Rights Council also noted, in resolution A/HRC/20/L.13, that the “global and open nature of the Internet” is “a driving force in accelerating progress towards development in its various forms.” This is not the case in Cameroon.
· End the persecution of writers and journalists for practicing free expression;
· Repeal criminal defamation laws, specifically those related to public figures;
· Amend Act No. 96/0 of 16 January 1996 to refer all press offenses, including defamation, libel and slander, to civil courts;
· Amend the code of criminal procedure to reduce maximum lengths of pre-trial detention;
· Enact an access to information law with protections for confidential sources for journalists and a public interest defense;
· Launch an independent review of the practices of the DGRE, the intelligence agency, which has been involved in abusive detentions of several journalists and accused of engaging in torture;
· Allow an international commission of inquiry to establish responsibility in the death in government custody of journalist Bibi Ngota;
· Adopt regulations that protect citizens’ rights to access the Internet and protect free expression;
· End the privatization of Internet policing, and place responsibility in the courts, with adequate due process protections;
· Promote universal access to communication technologies and adopt regulations that promote the Internet as an engine of social and economic development.
· Clarify the role of government telecommunications agencies and ensure the independence of the two regulation authorities, ART and ANTIC.
We ask you to take action by writing to your country’s representative in Geneva to ask that during the review of Cameroon, their delegation makes the recommendations listed above. You may wish to copy the report to support your request. Follow this link to find the contact details of the representative of your country to the United Nations in Geneva, click here.
For further information on PEN International’s policy and advocacy work at the United Nations please contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.