Censorship ‘symbols’ outlive one-party state


Rioters in Cameroon are calling for freedom of the press, writes Mark Huband in Yaoundé

The Guardian, 26 April 1991

CREAKING yellow taxis screech along the otherwise deserted boulevards between tall office blocks. Even in the afternoon the city is empty. Nobody walks. The sky is always grey. And the clouds hang with the ever-present threat of a stormburst.

For the radical lawyers who led Cameroon’s campaign for multi-party democracy, the marble fountain and brass chandeliers of the Hilton Hotel, standing encircled by the empty boulevards of the city centre, are the ideal surroundings to plan the end of authoritarianism. .

Now they sit there at ease, reading the latest editorials from their brothers-in-arms, the independent press who cannot afford the Hilton’s cocktails.

The press did venture into the Hilton once this week, on United Nations’ Press Freedom Day.

The arrest in January of Pius Njawe, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Le Messager, sparked a riot throughout Cameroon. It followed his refusal to submit the newspaper for official censorship by the ministry of territorial administration. He was subsequently released, although since then the riots and demonstrations have continued and many demonstrators have been killed.

Mr Njawe, now the hero of the country’s free press, blew kisses at the gathering of journalists and foreign diplomats as he took to the stage this week in the Hilton. A drum roll accompanied him up the steps. In the attentive silence which followed he listed the violent deaths, the imprisonments, the persecution of journalists from Chile to Liberia, from South Africa to Europe.

As he finished there was a flurry outside. Accompanied by a soldier, the minister of information, Augustin Kouomegni Kontchou, arrived. Some of the guests had seen him in the hotel an hour beforehand but he did not officially arrive until Mr Njawe’s speech was over.

He sat down at Mr Njawe’s table, and was introduced by the master of ceremonies before making his way to the stage.

Although a free press thrives in Cameroon, independent newspapers have to submit editions to the state censor.

Every day, newspapers are sold on the streets with sections blacked-out or scribbled out by the censor’s pen. Now editors appear to have mastered the art of symbolic censorship. Banned articles or paragraphs are disfigured in such a way as to make them legible by only half-heartedly scratching at the offensive words.

To cries of “censorship” from the audience, the minister wrapped his white cloak around him and asserted the government’s commitment to the principle of press freedom as promoted by the United Nations. “But, that should not be a licence for irresponsible journalism,” he told the editors.

Beneath the scratched-out lines of a censored interview with John Fru Ndi, leader of Cameroon’s main opposition party the Social Democratic Front, in the daily La Detente, the government is clearly accused of “exercising terrorism” against the “poor students” and “without a word of excuse”.

On the front page President Paul Biya’s quote to French journalists after a recent meeting with President François Mitterrand, is printed in bold: “In Cameroon censorship is more symbolic than real.”

“In that case, what happened to the editions of La Detente and Le Messager which were seized last week?” the newspaper asks.

President Biya yesterday appointed Cameroon’s first Prime Minister since the adoption of a multi-party system, naming Sadou Hayatou to the job until elections are held at some as yet unspecified date.

Mr Hayatou, aged 49, was previously secretary-general of the presidency, a key government post which is generally regarded as the closest the country previously had to the post of prime minister.

Mr Hayatou has also served as minister of agriculture, planning and regional development, and as finance minister. He is a northerner, which is politically significant in that Mr Biya and most senior government ministers come from the southern Beti tribe.

Mr Biya remains head of state.

But diplomats and opposition leaders believe that Mr Hayatou’s appointment is unlikely to quell the riots or silence demands for a national conference on the country’s future.



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