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Press Grants: When A President’s Charity Begins Abroad 

By Peterkins Manyong

June 7, 2011. Cameroon’s private press journalists will never forget this day. It is the day on which President Biya, through the voice of Issa Tchiroma, his Communication Minister, conveyed to proprietors and publishers the dreadful message that he hates them with all his soul.

He had done a similar thing in 1996 when he criminalized libel by handing the sledgehammer of censorship to the law courts. Self-censorship which this law engendered is the most agonized form of censorship because the individual painfully suppresses information which he/she knows to be factual for fear of litigation.

Tchiroma’s announcement that about 300 private media houses are condemned to share FCFA 135 million, down from FCFA 150 million of previous years is a clear message to practitioners of this sector that the New Deal feels safer with the private press dead.

To obtain the aid which will likely not exceed FCFA 1 million, about FCFA 500,000 will be
spent in compiling documents. The embarrassment was the more unbearable because less than two weeks before  the announcement a team from  France 24 TV had pocketed a cool FCFA 800 million after spending good time at Hilton Hotel at Government’s expense. The France 24 team had been hired to cleanse the image of the regime.

Biya seems to have forgotten that most of the regular Cameroonian newspapers like Le Messager, The Post, and Eden can be read online. By attempting to hide its hideousness through sugar-coated foreign TV reports, the regime has behaved like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in sand while the bulk of it is exposed.

Gerard Emmanuel Ondo Ndong had acquainted the court that sentenced him with the information that a good chunk of the money he was accused of embezzling had actually been used to pay foreign media to polish the image of the regime in foreign newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times. This means that the practice of bribing foreign media to whitewash the regime’s filthy image has been going on for long. Biya thus, behaves like the irrational foul owner who chooses to invite bush fowls and lavish them with corn while his own hungry chicks are standing by.

Despite this, it was the Washington Post which recently reported that Biya was a suave bandit with FCFA 100 billion in his account. After such acts of misdirected charity to foreign media, the same regime calls on journalists to be patriotic. Patriotism is not a feeling that can be aroused by sensitization or a passionate appeal. Cameroonians spontaneously demonstrate patriotism when Cameroon is engaged in an international football competition.

It is note worthy that while the Biya regime is meting out such shabby treatment to the collectivism of the private press, Jeune Afrique Economie, a private magazine by Blaise Pascal Talla, is pampered and caressed by the regime. Biya has good reasons to dread the publication which embarrassed him in 1992 with the very scandalous Messi Messi revelations on Presidential involvement in the collapse of SCB Bank.

Biya has surely not also forgotten the scrapes he often had with late Pius Njawe after very revealing publications. 1991 was characterized by a feud between late Jean Fochive and the private press. Fochive had to embark on a campaign of disinformation and misinformation to discredit the private press which was believed in as if it were the Holy Bible.

The National Coordination of Opposition Parties and Associations in 1991succeeded because of the private press. The perception of the private press as an opposition press seems to linger till present day. The shabby treatment being given the private press is, therefore, clearly a case of score settling.

It is not only in terms of grants that the private press is sidelined. In news gathering, independent journalists are discriminated upon. Public officials, as an unwritten rule, give copies of their speeches only to Cameroon Tribune and CRTV. During seminars and workshops, where per diem is made available, state-owned media are given special treatment.

Not contented with providing logistics to Government media, CRTV was described as the Indomitable Lions of the audio-visual media. Needless to say that the state virtually spoils its employees with mouth-watering pay packages. Yet both the private and public media are performing the same function-informing Cameroonians.

Whereas the private press is being thus insulted, political parties are being lavished with gargantuan sums of money with the pretext of subsidizing political parties. The ruling CPDM sometimes bags more than FCFA 1 billion, while the opposition SDF receives sometimes FCFA 250 million. The regime starts with massive rigging of elections to give the ruling party a crushing majority in Parliament and later uses Parliamentary representation to give the CPDM the lion’s share of the booty.

Communication is expensive, more expensive than the running of political parties. While French language newspapers like Le Messager and Le Jour, like The Post and run offices and pay staff, political parties hold congresses and conventions sometimes, once in four years. People are not paid to militate in political parties like reporters and few party officials are on a salary. Elected Mayors and MPs are paid by the state. Gabon, Senegal and Kenya, countries poorer than Cameroon seem to understand this, reason why they dish an estimated half a billion to the press.

Biya should understand that the private press has substantial powers to harm. He should not forget that a desperate man is capable of anything. The media can be a very lethal weapon if it is left in the hands of persons who feel they are unjustly treated. He knows that the Rwanda Genocide in which some 800,000 persons lost their lives was instigated by a private radio station.

Those who lived the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War surely still remember Ekukondem who used a mobile radio to give the Biafran forces moral support and this resulted in enormous casualties on government forces. Presidential elections will hold this year, if the electoral calendar is not changed. Biya wants victory. He surely knows what part the private press can play to enable him have it or not.

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