By Yerima Kini Nsom
The coverage of the crisis rocking the Northwest and Southwest Regions has washed ashore the yawning gulf in Cameroon’s media landscape. The landscape is deceptively affluent with over 600 newspapers, close to 300 radio stations, and about 30 television stations. This opulence is largely whimsical because the Cameroonian press lacks the vibrancy that it deserves.
For one thing, it is a divided press that has never closed ranks to achieve the unity of purpose in search of the status of a free and unfettered press. It has often embarked on “dog-eat-dog” journalism as many organs remain pliant tools in the hands of powerful politicians and money bags. From every indication, the difference between the mainstream media and the “awarawara press” or “la presse a gache” is like day and night in terms of practice.
Thus, it is easy to identify the organs that constitute the undisputed flagship of credible journalism in Cameroon. Though very limited in number, they are the torch-bearers of the cause, course, and the quintessence of watchdog journalism needed in our budding democracy. Though wallowing in pecuniary difficulties, this breed is tenaciously holding the fort, making sure that the truth, which is the first obligation of journalism, does not pale into partisan inexistence. Journalists of such organs are stubborn in their radical insistence on public accountability, respect of human rights, the sovereignty of civil polity, and the rule of law. They make efforts to truly inform, educate and entertain, making sure that rational thought and genuine national discourse in their newspaper pages, radio, and television airtime do not give way to parochial and cheap partisan talk.
They are those who make the Government not to keep mistaking the entire press for an extension of its Ministry of Communication and every journalist as its propaganda hunting dog. Even in the face of the multi-faceted difficulties that impede their smooth functioning, the mainstream media are not out of step with ethics. Their strength is the masterly packaging of balanced and verifiable information. They have their soot and rot but are mainly known as the people’s press. This is a press that faithfully articulates the concerns and the aspirations of the down-trodden.
On the other side of the coin is mostly epileptic publications who embark on the master’s voice journalism or survival journalism. Recently, some radio and television stations have joined the ranks of this kind of practice. The editorial policies of such organs are ideologically amorphous. They lack the visionary clarity and the moral suasion to serve the people. Most of its journalists are just the proverbial little birds, dancing in the middle of the road while the real drummers are in the establishment. What makes news to them is what comes from above. Small wonder that they take sides with the oppressors against the emasculated and voiceless masses in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, who are hemmed in a demonic conflict between the State and Separatists. They do not end at just publishing what can put a smile on faces of their paymasters upstairs, but equally attack the mainstream media for attempting to publish the bitter truth that does not please their bosses. You just need to hazard a peep into newspaper kiosks to get the telling headlines.
The variety of the “master’s voice” newspapers whose periodicities are not known, are mere pamphlets for time-serving schemers in Government. Their practice has been reduced to ‘patriotic’ reporting on the inflated egos of their masters. By so doing, they get the crumbs from the high table with all the pride. They look away even when some uniform men put Government in difficulties by behaving as if the two Regions are a conquered country wherein the military has a life and death hold over the citizenry. Survival journalism largely shuns reporting. Its mainstay is supporting. Thus, it belongs to the fraternity of docile followership and the willingness to applaud anything and everything that comes from the establishment at all levels.
They conquer and rule the newsstands whenever they have a good job of falsehood propagation from their masters. Sometimes, they attack even some members of Government unjustly on behalf of their paymasters. Due to their ideological sterility, they, more often, launch tribal and partisan wars and fight them, using the most virulent insulting words. If a big man suspects that someone is likely to be appointed to take over his position in the future, he would hire the newspapers to scoop for and even fabricate the dirtiest scandal to smear his image and run him down. To bloody the man’s chances, the newspapers are paid to run stories on claims that he is nursing inordinate ambition, lobbying, and scheming to be appointed. These are the ills that take the place of real issues of grave national import of our society in many media organs.
The division in the media landscape forebodes a kind of lethal Armageddon when the two camps stand trial in the court of posterity. Right now, we can only take credit for being largely a divided, unfree, and emasculated press, gnawed by all kinds of poverty. Our country’s press has the affluence but lacks the vibrancy that could help it fully contribute to the application of constitutional governance in our country. The remedy would have been auto-regulation, but it remains far-fetched. Journalists are too divided to come under one umbrella association. Once some journalists create a national association, others will be sponsored to create rival splintered groupings just to weaken it. Small wonder that the Cameroon Union of Journalists, CUJ, which could serve as an umbrella association for all journalists in the country, has gone comatose for many years today. For this reason, our press remains largely an innocuous “ngong dog” that can only bark but not bite. This year’s World Press Freedom Day that comes up on Sunday, May 3 gives Cameroonian journalists a chance to divorce the current chaotic plight by coming together with a common purpose of ameliorating their lot.