What is hate media? In Rwanda it was the racist weekly Kangura and the sinister Radiotélévision libre des mille collines (RTLM). Until 1994, in its columns and on air, paranoid extremist Hutus wound people up to commit a generalised massacre of the Tutsi “cockroaches”. In Cote d’Ivoire, it is screaming giant headlines in newspapers that meekly bent to the will of ambitious and violent politician. In the ex-Yugoslavia, it was the voices of belligerent Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian voices which galvanised their respective killers. In the Middle East, it is newspapers or TV for whom nothing but a pitiless and total war can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In Cameroon today, newspaper editors have for the past few weeks been boosting their business through outrage, denunciation and stigmatisation of individuals. Reporters Without Borders is worried that this public admonition and personal attacks carry a whiff of hatred. We are concerned because trials are being prepared and they are in danger of damaging a profession that is already in poor shape.
Embellishing their pages with allusive articles, citing obscure “well informed sources” and vague “indiscretions”, newspapers have published “the complete list of the homosexuals of the Republic” public figure by public figure. They say they are just providing a public health service, since homosexuality is a crime in Cameroon. As an organisation that defends freedom of the press, Reporters Without Borders will refrain from detailing how severely it views a law on homosexuality such as exists in Cameroon. That is not its role. However, we can say exactly how bad we think is the practise of journalism that lends itself to releasing anonymous tracts or score settling, but not to the essential freedom to criticise that media should enjoy in democratic societies.
But this sordid case in which Cameroon has become mired should serve some worthwhile purpose. To do justice to those journalists who are responsible and to clean up a media landscape where literally anything goes, there is no alternative: The press should be reformed and an independent regulatory body for the media should be established.
Even in the face of this scandalous behaviour, it is essential to abolish prison sentences for press offences to create a democracy worthy of the name. This statement is not a paradox. The failure exposed by this case of the so-called “homosexuals of the Republic” reveals the bankruptcy of the current system. First of all, there is a raft of sanctions that could genuinely repair the prejudice possibly done by the press. Fines, publication of court judgements, right of reply, and corrections are fair because they appear in the same context, are seen by the same public and speak with the same voice as that of those who caused the offence. Obliging a newspaper to publicly admit that it has made a mistake is a satisfactory form of redress, but throwing a man in prison does not in any way provide justice to the person libelled. On the contrary, sent to prison, these mercenaries of journalism serve their sentence and come out crowned with all the glory of a martyr to freedom. Finally, free of the harshness manifested by some and the suffering inflicted by imprisoning others, relations between the powerful and journalists are no longer imprinted with this idea of revenge that hamper so many emerging democracies. As very often in democratic reform movements, lawyers have a crucial role to play in Cameroon today. Thus in the case of the so-called “homosexuals of the Republic”, if they want to help us to convince the Cameroon government, deputies and prosecutors of the validity of our arguments, those appearing for plaintiffs should show inventiveness and systematically plead only for fair and appropriate penalties.
In any case, the recourse to the courts should only be a last resort, when professional routes have been exhausted. Finally there should be a self-regulating council for the media, representative of the profession and independent of the levers of power. The government cannot call on the press to be responsible while at the same time denying it all power to exercise responsibility. By providing itself with a council from its own number, the press will be obliged to respect the laws and charters that it institutes. Journalism is no exception to a number of other professions. Far more than any punishment handed down by a court, the sanction of one’s peers is genuinely shaming. And then finally, Cameroon’s courts would no longer be overloaded with cases of a highly political nature.
Reporters Without Borders has for more than ten years condemned “criminals of the public word”, hate media, bogus journalists and professional racketeers. Our organisation refuses and will always refuse to defend those who use the media to incite violence or to attack people by name. Because they too, like some presidents, ministers, warlords, militiamen, businessmen or police, violate press freedom. But confronted by the existing situation, we urge President Paul Biya to finally listen to us. After this absurd and dangerous case, the Cameroon press must have the right to regulate itself, for the good of all, government and journalists, but above all for its citizens.
Robert Ménard, Secretary General