The Committee to Protect Journalists named Cameroon journalist Ahmed Abba as one of four winners of its prestigious 2017 International Press Freedom Award. Abba is serving a 10-year sentence on terrorism charges.
Next to Ahmed Abba, the three other recipients of the award are Patricia Mayorga, who investigated organized crime in Mexico, Pravit Rojanaphruk, a press freedom advocate from Thailand, and Afrah Nasser, a Yemeni blogger living in exile in Sweden.
Ahmed Abba, who works for the Hausa Language Service of the French international broadcaster RFI, was sentenced on charges of "failure to denounce terrorism" and "laundering the products of terrorism acts." At the time of his sentencing, he had already spent two years in detention.
The accusations were made after Abba's reporting on the attacks by the Nigeria-based Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. The trial drew sharp criticism from rights groups.
"Cameroon should have opened investigations and seen what is wrong because no one seems to understand what is happening," said Abdouraman Issa, Abba's cousin. He hopes the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ's) Award will push the government to rethink Abba's sentencing.
The trial was conducted in April by a military tribunal in the capital Yaounde. "His trial was not fair enough," said 29-year old teacher Albert Mukwelle, who keenly followed the hearings. "He merits an award as the most courageous journalist in the world."
"What they are doing now is blackmailing our nation," said Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon's government spokesman and communication minister. Tchiroma argued that the CPJ award was a tool used to put pressure on Cameroon.
"They want to take our nation hostage. They want to get their correspondent freed which is against our law and that is the reason why I say I decry it, I denounce it, I say that it is unfair to lay blame on Cameroon," Tchiroma added.
Cameroon low in press freedom rankings
Abba is one of several reporters and media organizations that has suffered under the government's media crackdown. Earlier this year, at least eight journalists were arrested in the crisis in the Anglophone region. The journalists were later released on a pardon by President Paul Biya.
The National Communication Council (NCC) suspended the licenses of at least 40 media houses for six months for violating terrorism laws. The NCC's President Peter Essoka said that these journalists are "people who think that they have a certain aura around them and that nobody can touch them."
Essoka argued that the NCC punishes unprofessional conduct and refusal to respect journalistic norms and ethics. "We did what we thought was right and it will be erroneous to tell us here that we have a heavy hand on every one," he said.
However, journalist Mukong Kingsley disagrees with Essoka. He argued that President Biya created the NCC to punish media outlets that oppose his government.
"The president of this country Cameroon is 'the supreme' of everything. He is the president of the republic, the president of the judicial system, the president of every minister and the president of everything and he is the one solely responsible for every decision that is being taken."
Kingsley believes Biya ordered the arrest and detention of the RFI Hausa correspondent.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in 2014 that Cameroon had clearly taken a tougher line on the media, which was reflected in the number of summons and suspensions it issued. The organization ranked Cameroon 126th out of 180 countries in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
"I am at the helm of an institution which manages at least 30 television stations, not less than 200 private radios and you cannot count the written press, I have never interfered with any newspaper as far as their editorial line is concerned," said Tchiroma.
"If this is not freedom of press, what on earth can you claim to be freedom of press in this world? The freedom of press that we have in this nation is far beyond what is taking place in many European countries," Tchiroma added.