By Nformi Sonde Kinsai

The United States Congress has once more written to President Paul Biya, calling on him to release jailed journalists.

Among those the US Congress is fronting for their liberation are: Amadou Vamoulké, Tsi Conrod and Thomas Awah Junior.

This information is contained in a letter dated May 8, and endorsed by United States Senators Richard J. Durbin; Patrick Leahy; Benjamin L. Cardin; Chris Van Hollen and Member of Congress, Karen Bass.

According to the US Congress, the call is “in the spirit of the recent efforts to recognise the important work of journalists – including the global #FreeThePress campaign, World Press Freedom Day on May 3, and the awarding of prestigious Pulitzer Prizes on May 4…

“Detained in recent years on politically-motivated charges, the treatment of these journalists and others in Cameroon reflects a troubling pattern of repression regarding free speech and freedom of the press. Given their dubious detention and danger of infection by the coronavirus, to which prison populations are especially vulnerable, we urge that these three journalists be released without delay,” the members of Congress stated.

Recalling that Cameroon has historically had an active and diverse media, the writers of the missive, however, regretted that “in recent years, there has been a troubling increase in restrictions on freedom of expression and independent media as well as abuse of the country’s libel laws. 

The US Department of State’s 2019 Human Rights Report noted that individuals ‘who criticised the Cameroon government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals,’ while Freedom House has bluntly categorised Cameroon’s press as ‘not free,’” they highlighted.

To the US Congress, “the cases of Vamoulké, Conrad and Awah Jr. appear to be clear examples of the lack of press freedom in Cameroon”

According to Vamoulké’s lawyer, his arrest and imprisonment in 2016 for the alleged embezzlement was a reprisal for his management of Cameroon Radio and Television, CRTV, which he headed from 2005 to 2016.

 Since his detention, Vamoulké has yet to be formally charged, despite 20 hearings at the Special Criminal Court.

“Conrad is similarly awaiting a hearing before a Military Appeal Tribunal for his 2018 sentencing to 15 years in prison on charges of hostility against the State, contempt for civil authority, and spreading false news, and has reportedly been tortured while in custody in Yaounde, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Awah Jr. was arrested in 2017 while interviewing protesters for Afrik2 Radio and sentenced in 2018 to 11 years in prison for alleged hostility to the fatherland, spreading false news, and contempt for civil authority. 

“Both Conrad and Awah Jr. have since been sentenced with additional questionable charges. Moreover, Awah Jr. has suffered from poor physical and mental health, and since being incarcerated, has been treated for tuberculosis and pneumonia. Appeals to charges that Conrad and Awah Jr. are involved in Cameroon’s crisis in the English-speaking territories have also been postponed several times since submitting the requests in June 2019,” the letter to President Biya narrates. 

Quoting a statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists on World Press Freedom Day 2020, the US Congress notes that “Jailing journalists is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime, but keeping them in jail in the midst of a pandemic is sheer cruelty…The free circulation of information and ideas is essential to fighting COVID-19, and journalists can’t do their job from behind the bars.”

Besides the aforementioned names, another journalist who was arrested on August 2, 2020, and has been held incommunicado is Samuel Ajiakeh aka Wazizi. The Buea based journalist was picked up by security forces and since then his whereabouts is not known. Even when the court ordered that the accused should be brought to court, the military has failed to do so.

On Thursday, May 7, the Buea High Court threw out the Habeas Corpus, which was filed on behalf of the detained on grounds that the document was constituted using the wrong quotation of the law. But the Lead Counsel, Barrister Emmanuel Nkea, has vowed to reconstitute the document to avoid any legal polemics with the Judge. 

Meanwhile, the US Congress Members reminded Biya that “in the past, you have worked with some of us to release others unjustly detained in Cameroon. We urge you to demonstrate similar leadership and mercy during this unprecedented global crisis by immediately releasing Vamoulké, Conrad and Awah Jr.”