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Press Freedom

Cameroon army confirms TV anchor's death in detention

Benita van Eyssen
June 10, 2020

Samuel Wazizi disappeared, from TV screens and from daily life, when police came for him on August 2, 2019, and handed him to the military. His death in detention came to light this week.

Cameroon journalist Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe alias ‘Wazizi’
Image: twitter.com/@FAJafrica

Samuel Wazizi was the on-screen name of news anchor Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe of the independent Chillen Muzik and Television (CMTV).

The Pidgin-language station is based in Buea, the capital of Southwest Region of Cameroon. Its core audience is citizens caught in Cameroon's ongoing bloody Anglophone separatist crisis.

It was during an upswing in hostilities between the armed separatists and government forces in August 2019 that Wazizi was detained by police. He was later blindfolded and led away in a military truck to an undisclosed location.

Read more: 'It is a very ugly time for journalists in Cameroon'

Ambazonia flags at a demonstration in Berlin
In 2017, secessionists declared the Anglophone parts of Cameroon an independent nation called Ambazonia Image: Imago-Imago/C. Spicker

Authorities remained mute for several days after media reports of Wazizi's death in detention emerged. Southwest Governor Barnard Okalia Bilai told journalists that only Yaounde could answer over his ultimate fate. 

On June 5, the Defense Ministry confirmed that Wazizi had died, saying it had been as a result of "severe sepsis" on August 17, 2019. The date provided by the ministry in a press statement was two weeks after Wazizi was detained. The confirmation of his death came one day short of what would have been Wazizi's 36th birthday and more than 300 days after he was arrested.

Led away blindfolded

When Wazizi's older brother, Abomo Henry Ngoga, was summoned to the police, he thought he was being pranked. "I reported to the Muea police. I was told they want to open an investigation and from there they will release him," he told DW.

"We asked if he has committed any crime. They said he has not done anything  that it was just an investigation."

Wazizi's lawyer was told he was being held on suspicion of colluding with "terrorists." The journalist was never seen in public again, and the court case against him was postponed on several occasions.

In confirming his death, the Defense Ministry said Wazizi had been in touch with his family. It also stated that Wazizi, while "claiming to be a presenter on a local television station, was in fact a logistician for various terrorist groups."

'Tomorrow it could be another'

"We are very troubled. As journalists, we cannot hear that a colleague who was arrested in August 2019, tortured, kept incommunicado for that length of time, is dead," said Larry Uchenna, a reporter for The Voice newspaper.

Journalists in the region are "sincerely upset and bitter" Uchenna told Equinox TV. Wazizi was dedicated not only to journalism, but to providing for his large extended family too, he said.

Journalists in the volatile English-speaking southwest and northwest have been a target for the Francophone-led central government under President Paul Biya in Yaounde. The Anglophone separatists target journalists too.

Read more: Both sides in Cameroon's escalating separatist crisis turn on journalists

The international press freedom lobby and human rights groups weighed in when Wazizi was detained. 

Independent inquiry 

"Independent journalists covering the conflict are often tagged as accomplices of separatists and tried in military courts. The press in Cameroon has never been free throughout the two regimes that have ruled the country," says DW's Mimi Mefo. "As an independent investigative journalist in Cameroon, you know you could be jailed or killed."

Anglophone Human rights lawyer Felix Agbor Balla has been vocal about arbitrary detention and human rights violations in Cameroon. "If it is confirmed that it was as a result of torture that he died, an independent commission of inquiry has to be created and those responsible for these heinous crimes brought to justice," he said.

"We need to have answers — the government has to provide answers as to the whereabouts of Mr. Wazizi."

Read more: Cameroon's private media defy ban on political debate

Many jailed journalists

Mimi Mefo
Mimi Mefo is an award-winning Cameroonian journalist and DW AfricaLink radio hostImage: Mimi Mefo

Mimi Mefo is one of many journalists jailed in the central African country in recent years. The profession is rife with the risk of antagonizing a regime where officials want to dictate what the media reports to the public. The multi-media journalist and commentator is often dismissed by the regime and its supporters as a "terrorist".

In the immediate the wake the Defence Ministry's statement on the death of Wazizi, Mefo and two more of her colleagues from the region were targeted by media loyal to the regime. 

The daily L'Anecdote headline translates as "These collaborators who populate the press" and under the word "Terrorism".

Mefo sums up the media landscape in Cameroon: "If you fail to toe the line, you are arrested and charged with acts of terrorism, especially if what is said was not in favor of the regime."

Jean Marie Ngong Song (in Bamenda, Cameroon) contributed to this article.

Benita van Eyssen is a digital content planner, producer and editor@benita_v_eyssen