The approach of the 2004 presidential elections had a major impact on the press in 2003, with cases of censorship, bans and judicial summonses throughout the year.
The authorities again turned their sights on the independent press. Journalists had enjoyed something of a respite in the previous two years, but they suffered under the harsher line taken by the government in 2003, partly because of the presidential elections scheduled for 2004. The newspapers attacked the president, who responded by cracking down on the media with censorship and bans.
The political struggles that emerged in the run-up to the election were reflected in columns of the newspapers. Some government members even created newspapers in order to attack their opponents. The state-owned press meanwhile continued to serve the government’s interests.
Progress with the liberalisation of broadcasting was slow. A few new commercial radio and TV stations were given permission to broadcast. At the same time, Freedom FM, a station owned by the independent Le Messager group, was still not given an operating licence.
A journalist imprisoned
Rémy Ngono, the presenter of the satirical show "Kondré chaud" on Radio Télévision Siantou (RTS), was arrested on 5 August 2003 and placed in Kondengui prison on the basis of the one-year prison sentence passed on him in absentia a year before, on 7 July 2002, for libelling a politician. He was released provisionally on 4 September.
A journalist detained
On the night of 13 April 2003, gendarmes went to the premises of SOPECAM, a state-owned printing works and publishing house, and confiscated the diskette containing the next day’s edition of the privately-owned daily Mutations. The edition included a special section on the succession to President Paul Biya, with a front-page lead headline that said: "After Biya: uncertainty at the end of his reign." Gendarmes arrested Mutations managing editor Haman Mana the next evening at the newspaper’s offices in Yaoundé and took him to gendarmerie headquarters, where he was not allowed to receive visitors. He was released the following day but gendarmes confiscated copies of the newspaper from news stands in Yaoundé on 16 April. Meanwhile, SOPECAM director Marie-Claire Nnana explained that a printer is held responsible for press offences under the 1990 press law. "We were obliged to look after our interests," she said in an editorial on 17 April in the governmental daily Cameroon Tribune, of which she is also the managing editor.
Two journalists threatened
Jean-Melvin Akam, the editor of Le Messager, and René Dassie, one of his journalists, received death threats in April 2003. An unidentified individual harassed them by telephone, accusing them of trying to destabilise the gendarmerie. On 30 April, he told them that he was going to start taking action. The newspaper publicly denounced the threats and said they came from "an agent of the secretary of state for defence"
Harassment and obstruction
On the orders of communication minister Jacques Fame Ndongo, provincial governors suspended terrestrial broadcasting by commercial TV channels RTA and Canal 2 on 19 February 2003 on the grounds that they were operating illegally. Owned respectively by cable TV operators AEA and TV+, the two channels had licences that allowed them to broadcast foreign-made content but not their own programmes. Reporters Without Borders learned that the decision to close them down was taken after they broadcast political debates in which the government was criticised. At the same time, the communications minister threatened the owners of broadcasting companies with additional taxation. Aside from RTA and Canal 2, there is only one other commercial TV channel, which mainly broadcasts films.
Communication minister Ndongo on 14 March ordered the closure of Yaoundé-based radio station Magic FM for "affront" to the president and state institutions, calls for "sedition", "dissemination of false news" and generally "disturbing the peace and moral standards" after President Biya was criticised in one of its programmes, "Magic Attitude," which had listener feedback. The president was accused of financing sects led by former Rosicrucian Raymond Bernard, founder of the "Renewed Order of the Temple" and "Circes." There was also talks of embezzlement of funds assigned to a road project and the fact that several Biya associates held more one government post at the same time.
Security agents prevented several journalists from questioning the former president of the Central African Republic, Ange-Félix Patassé, at Yaoundé airport on 21 March. Patassé was supposed to give a press conference before leaving for exile in Togo, but the security forces kept reporters and photographers at a distance when they tried to approach or question him.
On the afternoon of 23 May, some 50 police and soldiers surrounded the studios of Freedom FM, a radio station belonging to the Le Messager group that was to have been launched the next day, and they sealed its entrance so that it could not begin broadcasting. Communication minister Ndongo, who had ordered the operation, claimed that the station never requested a licence and that it would therefore have been illegal for it to start broadcasting. The owners insisted that they had followed all the necessary procedures and called for the seals to be removed. The station’s manager, Pius Njawé, filed a lawsuit for the recovery of his equipment. But there were no further developments and at the end of 2003, the studios of Freedom FM were still under seal.
A brigade of gendarmes stormed the premises of the weekly Le Démenti and threatened its staff on 1 August, three days before the hearing of an appeal by its managing editor, Georges Gilbert Baongla, who was accused of publishing false news reports. Baongla was finally acquitted on 4 August.
Customs in Douala on 6 November confiscated all 5,000 copies of the Cameroonian English-language monthly Insight Magazine, which is printed in Nigeria. Police interrogated the magazine’s publisher, Félix Etia, for more than two hours about its cover story, which talked of alarm about the possible collapse of the country’s reunification. The confiscated copies were not returned.
Radio Veritas, the station of the Catholic archdiocese of Douala, stopped broadcasting on orders from the authorities on 14 November, two weeks after it was launched. Douala archbishop Christian Tumi, the president of the station’s editorial board, had been summoned that day to a meeting with the provincial governor, and it apparently was the governor who said the station had to stop because it had not received permission from the communication ministry. Radio Veritas was first launched in August 2001, when it had to stop broadcasting after a week. The communication ministry finally reversed its decision and gave the station permission to broadcast on 12 December, on the condition that it concentrated on religious programming and accepted the supervision of the Douala archdiocese.
A dozen radio and TV stations in the west and northwest of the country were told by the communication ministry during the week beginning 22 December to shut down by midnight on 31 December at the latest because they did not have "official authorisation to operate." At least five radio stations and two TV stations, including Radio Abakwa, Redemption Radio, Che Radio, Republican Television Network and the BBC, were affected in the Bamenda area (in North-West province). Batcham FM and Radio Star were forced to close in Bafoussam, the capital of West province, while Radio Universitaire Tankou was advised not to try to start up. Radio Yemba and Radio Site Art closed down in Dschang and Bafang (in West province). Many privately-owned newspapers condemned these measures as a blow to news diversity in Cameroon.