By Charlie Ndi Chia
Every given period or era is replete with its own metaphors. When I got into journalism decades ago, one such metaphor was “BMM”. Others were “Tcholire”, “Kondengui” and much later, “15 days, renewable”. The list is long, but we could do with these few for now.
BMM was a torture outfit, a metaphor for what awaited anyone who dared to criticize the political status quo. Also known as “God no dey”, those who manned this torture squad were, by and large, tin gods. They bestrode the place like colossus, spied on everyone else, especially those of the profession called journalism. They destroyed limb, life, career and family life with sardonic relish.
Tcholire was where the likes of Albert Womah Mukong, the “Prisoner without a Crime” were made the unwilling guests of the infamous Jean Forchive. Here, they served time in isolation and physical torture for criticizing Ahidjo. It was Cameroon’s reply to Robben Island, where the enigmatic Nelson Mandela spent two decades for daring the apartheid gas bags.
I served time in the political wing of Kondengui and ventured to study both the sociology of the place and the mindset of the sadists that administered the hell hole. This was immediately after the foiled coup d’état of April 6, 1984. Then, I was young, daring and intrepid. But this, in itself, is a completely different story to be told later on.
Time was, for example, when the Senior Divisional Officer, SDO, was the de facto Editor-in-Chief of every publication. Reporters, Editors, Publishers and other trained professionals often approached SDOs with the sacerdotal humility of one about to partake of the Lord’s Supper. SDOs would retain newspaper dummies for up to a month at times and then, resort to lecture gifted professionals on which name should have chronological preference, or take the biscuit, if you will, in every given news item.
They would wrench off news stories considered offensive to the regime or a local bigwig and order that you fill up the space with “softer” or friendlier information, bring it back to be vetted before you commit the newspaper to print.
It was, to say the least, a harrowing experience practising journalism in Cameroon at the time. I was arrested and detained many more times than you can count on your finger tips, charged with ‘thought crime’ and later released without apology. On each of these occasions, I would be stripped down to my dross and shown the dirty cold floor, strewn with stale urine and shit to spend my “15 days, renewable” on it. Bread and sardine were served inside such repulsively mean and filthy cells. You could only have a bath upon being released. The experience was harrowing; it invariably robbed one of one’s humanity, if the one was not as stubborn as the chewing gum that I believe I was.
The irony is that many of the mindless scumbags and mavericks who masterminded this evil are today passing off for democrats, hailing ‘New Deal’ human rights and all that jazz. They are sanctimonious hypocrites. Another irony is that this primitive practice spilled over to, and was effectively adopted both as a modus operandi and modus Vivendi by Biya’s ‘New Deal’ and by that same token, the CPDM administration.
It took the temerity of a few newspapers, manned by daring Editors or, as Bernard Muna once put it to me, ‘people with suicidal instincts’, to defy the brutes and fight censorship to a standstill. Most surprisingly, it took dare-devil English-speaking Journalists of Radio Cameroon and much later, CRTV, to tell the “apostles of the grand stands” that the practice of primitive, crude censorship ought to be consigned to the compost, nay, garbage heap of political mediocrity; better still, to the dust bin of history.
I recall being reminded rather passionately, even by those who are today, “championing” critical journalism at CRTV of how I wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel by objectively and critically reporting and analyzing the news. I vividly remember how some of us were avoided as though we were ebola-infected by those “Journalists of the Next of Kin” who felt that the best Reporter was the one who could sing like a popinjay for their supper.
That the ideal Journalist should jingle political Sanctus bells for the optimum pleasure of “apostles of the grand stands”, with sirens and all, donned in elaborate textiles, overflowing robes, with their flunkeys close by, to flatter them with tom-tom drums.
When one listens to the radio these days, watches television, or reads certain newspapers, one is wont to find these “born-again” champions of a free media and other “Journalists Iscariot” dishing out lessons on free speech, good practice and all that; one is wont to watch with sadness how Quixotic cowards who either waited for yesterday’s dew to be cleared or were born into ready-made freedoms about which they never broke a sweat, rant like ants, providing the yardstick at every twist, with which every media practitioner else must abide and operate.
Lest we forget, the few Cameroonian Journalists who belled the freedom cat if you will, were, to be candid, greatly assisted by the fierce, unstoppable wind of change, which was blowing from the East at the time. Plus Ni John Fru Ndi’s launching in Bamenda of the SDF, the military intimidation notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, because of the rare window of freedom which the CPDM overlords left ajar, Journalists Iscariot, rented jesters now litter the entire landscape. They talk big. They are garrulous. They have either created or encouraged rich sacred cows and placed their candy wraps beneath their iron heels. They operate as mere ciphers, megaphones and other play things for moneybags and publicity seekers, whose ultimate goal is to short-change the system and its people. And as I indicated elsewhere before now, the place is littered with rented scribblers who honour/award feudal fascists and nattering nabobs for filthy lucre.
However the relative freedom came about, the fact remains that under the CPDM regime, Journalists are expressing themselves without recourse to what obtained in the BMM era. Remember that the SDOs and Governors whom we approached with trepidation in the days of yore, because they were our de facto Editors-in-Chief are today, practically pilloried and told to their faces how much land they have thieved from the people.
Their powers having been watered down by certain manifest acts of the CPDM, which most of them serve both openly and in secret. And this is like saying that the CPDM has, willy-nilly, recognized the peculiar nature of the journalism profession, which has its own ethics, standards and trends.
Give it to the ruling party. The CPDM has, albeit, reluctantly recognized that it is in the nature of the media to pass objective judgment on the actions of every section of the community, including that of those who govern.
This duty, which the critical taxpaying public expects of the Journalist, can only be fairly discharged if the regime recognizes true journalists’ all encompassing and sacred right to seek the public interest as they see it.
This way, the media and their audience will benefit, since they will obtain accurate feedback from citizens rather than distorted and truth pervading garbage often packaged in “motions of support” that people can easily recognize for what it is; that sycophants are churning out.
The CPDM’s only comfortable choice so far, has been to at least, leave the freedom window ajar. If the party greedily kept the right to dole free speech in starvation rations just like it has commandeered political power, the chances would have been, short and simple, leaving the ‘window wide shut’. You can call it ambivalence, chicanery or simply stealing the baby’s food. Heavens forbid!
Cheers, and let’s keep smiling!