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Cameroon widens clampdown

Cristina Krippahl
January 30, 2017

After cutting off the English-speaking regions from the Internet, targeting media outlets and stripping Cameroon’s beauty queen of her crown for speaking her mind, the government has now set its sights on journalists.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya
Image: imago/Xinhua Afrika

The Cameroonian Government seems especially worried that word gets out into the world about the situation in Anglophone regions. Journalists working for the international media, including DW’s correspondent in Cameroon, have been threatened with sanctions if they report on the conflict. In the meantime, the media regulator CNC (Conseil National de la Communication) has warned media outlets that they could see their licenses revoked if they report favorably on separatist or federalist demands by the English-speaking minority. In a statement, the regulator wrote that allowing English-speakers to voice their grievances in the media is likely "to adversely affect the Republican system, unity and territorial integrity, and the democratic principles on which the state stands," Journalists have reacted by accusing the CNC of trying to muzzle the press.

The widening clampdown by President Paul Biya’s government aims at strangling a protest movement by a segment of the population that feels it is being politically and economically sidelined by the Francophone majority. Both French and English are official languages in Cameroon. But many in the two English-speaking regions claim they have been discriminated against since independence in 1961, for instance in education and judicial system. They do not feel adequatley represented in government and complain of an erosion of the Anglophone identity. 

Beauty queen dethroned

Journalists are far from being the only targets of the clampdown. This weekend, Miss Cameroon Julie Frankline Cheugue was stripped of her crown. Earlier, the beauty queen had been accused of supporting strikes by professional groups of the English speaking regions. Cheugue had reportedly called on the Government of Cameroon to listen to the worries of the Anglophone. She told DW that she had learned about her dismissal through social media, and added that she was not going to accept this sanction, since she had been elected by the Cameroonians. "I am not in a political party. I am simply doing what a Miss is supposed to do. Concerning the Northwest and the Southwest: We are a united country and peace is everything. That is my only advice," Cheugue said.

But Solange Ingrid Amougou, president of the committee that organizes the Miss Cameroon election, told DW that Cheugue’s dismissal had come about because of insubordination and gross indiscipline. "As a model, she is supposed to promote the image of our country. She is not there to create disorder. She is not there to practice politics, because we are an apolitical organization," Amougou said. 

Biya’s heavy handedness

Sanctions against Cheugue for voicing an opinion are just one in a long list of measures which have been largely criticized as incommensurate. Last week, the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions were cut off from the internet in an effort to curb protests. The country’s mobile network operators forwarded subscribers a message by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, warning that they could face jail sentences of up to six months and huge fines if they published or spread information "that you can’t prove."

An image showing the map of Cameroon and the regions where English and French are spoken.

Protests began two months ago as strikes by lawyers and teachers. The lawyers complained that the influence of the French language was overbearing and wondered why French-speaking judges who don't understand English have been transferred to English-speaking regions. Thousands of English-speaking teachers, lawyers and students then joined the strikes to protest a perceived marginalization. 

Charged with terrorism

Clashes with the police have led to the death of several protesters. Calls have intensified for a referendum on federalism or even a secession, as protests grow in the regions where about a fifth of the country’s 22 million people live.

Yaounde’s Government adamantly opposes a federation or partition. But even demands for greater autonomy can land you in jail, as civil society leaders Felix Agbor Nkongho and Fontem Neba found out when they were arrested two weeks ago. Like many others detained in the clampdown, they now face charges of terrorism under a controversial 2014 anti-terror law and could yet be court-martialed. 

Moki Edwin contributed to this report