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Celebrating Press Freedom In Chains 

By Yerima Kini Nsom

“Journalists are born free everywhere but they are in chains in Cameroon.” When one American journalist mooted this observation in a comment apparently inspired by the French Philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, he was holding brief for his Cameroonian colleagues that are still grappling with issues of fundamental press freedom.

The situation still held sway as Cameroonian journalists joined their counterparts the world over to celebrate or commemorate the 2015 World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The theme for this year’s edition was “Let journalism thrive towards better reporting, gender equality and Safety in the Digital Age”

Although Cameroonian journalists enjoy a huge measure of freedom to collect treat and disseminate information, they still have a long way to go in achieving the fundamental elements of press freedom. Lack of access to official sources of information is the stigma that has adulterated whatever Government has been brandishing as press freedom in Cameroon. According to the Vice President of one of America’s leading newspapers, The New York Times, David Mac-Craw, freedom of access to official sources of information by journalists in every country is the hall mark for press freedom. The reality in Cameroon is that there is no law that guarantees access to official sources or compels State officials to give information to journalists on issues of public interest when they need it.

Going by the President of the Cameroon Union of Journalists, CUJ, the situation is even worse given that journalists, especially those of the private press, are not allowed to cover certain areas of the administration and State institutions. For instance, journalists are not allowed to cover the Presidency of the Republic, the Prime Minister’s office and other areas. They do so only when special arrangements have been made for the coverage of some events.

More so, Government will certainly choose a list of news organs that are less critical of its actions. This is a clear indication that the management of public affairs in our country is still largely shrouded in secrecy. It is against this backdrop that professional associations have been calling for the enactment of an information Act that will somewhat guarantee access to official sources of information.
A group of journalists proposed a draft law on the issue under the leadership of the civil society organisation known as the Africaphonie recently. The draft provides that any official who refuses to give out information of public interest in time of need commits an offense punishable by the law. The CUJ as well as the Cameroon Employed Journalist Trade Union have all proposed the enactment of an information act akin to the one that was adopted in the US in 1966 and Nigeria in 2011.

Besides, the Coordinator for the Committee for the Protection of Journalists for Africa, Mohammed Keita, has highlighted self censorship as one of the ills ailing press freedom in Cameroon.
“Self censorship here is not even a sustainable security mechanism. It compromises the right of citizens to independent and reliable information that they need to take their decisions”, he stated in a release recently.

Moreover, the poor economic environment in which news media organs operate is equally a limitation to press freedom in Cameroon. News organs are hardly vibrant enterprises. They are weak and poorly organised outfits that provide only precarious working conditions for their journalists.
The President of CUJ cum member of the National Communication Council, NCC, Charly Ndi Chia, puts it bluntly that “the take-home of a majority of journalists in Cameroon cannot even take them home.”

It was to arrest such a chaotic situation that participants at the National Communication Forum, in December 2012, recommended the amendment of certain provisions of the 1990 law on mass communication. Such an amendment will help, among other things, reset the conditions for the creation of news organs. It will equally ensure that only news organs that are vibrant enterprises are created henceforth. It recommends the creation of small and medium size enterprises in the social and communication sector.
Experts are of the opinion that the transformation of the existing news organs to media enterprises will be a spring board for the creation of many jobs. They hold that if media enterprises are made economically viable, they will be Government’s partners in the fight against unemployment amongst youths. Such enterprises will be obliged to pay taxes thereby contributing to the development of the national economy.

These are the issues that make fundamental press freedom farfetched in Cameroon. Until the economic situation of the Journalists is looked into, the Cameroonian press will continue to be in chains of sorts.

Although it generated so much hope and enthusiasm, the collective convention that journalists were expected to sign with their employers a few years back, remains a pipe dream. Publishers of newspapers and other news organ owners are reticent about taking any engagements to pay decent salaries to their journalists and affiliating them to the National Social Insurance Fund. They are in turn, accusing Government of failing to keep their own side of the bargain by refusing to implement the Florence Convention and other international instruments that would have assuaged their economic burdens.

Even as they wallow in such a despicable situation, Cameroonian Journalists are yet to learn to fight for their freedom as a united front. They trigger isolated battles in dispersed ranks. Many of them remain at the beck and call of politicians.

It must also be pointed out that unethical practices constitute one of the greatest impediments to press freedom. Press freedom is a perfect marriage of convenience between journalists’ right to collect, treat and disseminate information and his social responsibility.

Thus, it saddens advocates of press freedom when some unscrupulous journalists in Cameroon use the freedom they have to insult people and talk about their privacy. Politicians pay some of them to write articles and run down their political enemies and rivals.

The fight for press freedom remains quite undying but the social responsibility of the journalist must be made an all-time crusade in Cameroon

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