Reporters Without Borders discusses the issue of press misconduct in its reply to a letter from the economy and finance minister announcing his intention to file suit against several newspaper editors. The press freedom organisation explains why prison sentences for press offences do not redress the harm done to those who are the victims of defamation.
Mr. Polycarpe Abah Abah
Minister of Economy and Finance
BP 13750 - Yaoundé
Republic of Cameroon
Paris, 3 April 2006
Thank you for your letter of 21 March in which you tell us you intend to bring legal actions against four newspaper editors for waging what you consider to be “an outrageously defamatory and insulting press campaign” against you and your family.
I would like to share with you my thoughts on the current turmoil in Cameroon. Sordid “scandals” have been aired by journalists disowned by the rest of the profession. Public figures have been attacked and held up to opprobrium. After sounding out press freedom organisations, some leading figures have sued newspaper editors. All this adds up to a crisis. It is legitimate to talk in such terms when different groups of citizens, journalists and public figures are so polarised.
Journalists are obviously not above the law. As Reporters Without Borders has often had occasion to say, responsible journalism involves both rights and responsibilities. Defamation, insults, false reports and calls for violence are all forms of professional misconduct that can have serious consequences. Mechanisms providing for fair punishment and compensation are essential in order to protect people from any excesses and to make the press act responsibly. But the rule of law means not only that citizens may seek redress before the courts if they believe they have been defamed, but also that the press has an equal ability to defend itself against accusations.
Press offences are punishable by imprisonment under Cameroon’s laws as they currently stand. In our view, this prevents justice being done. Reporters Without Borders would like to draw your attention to the three major arguments for affirming that the criminalization of journalistic misconduct is unfair, counterproductive and undemocratic, that prison is not the answer.
It is a basic legal principle in a democracy that punishments should be in proportion to the offence. Such international bodies as the United Nations and the International Organisation of French-Speaking Countries (OIF) have recognized this principle and asked their members to carry out the necessary reforms. This has not happened in Cameroon, not at least as far as its press law is concerned. Secondly, imprisoning the person legally responsible for a press offence may be a tough punishment but it does not redress the damage done. On the other hand, a court order forcing a newspaper to publish a statement acknowledging that it was wrong reaches the same readers in the same way as the original libel and offsets its negative effects. Thirdly, one of the perverse effects of legislation that sends journalists to prison, no matter how guilty of misconduct they may have been, is that they emerge from prison with the aura of martyrs. The offender becomes the victim, and the victim becomes the offender.
In addition to the general principles that make us opposed to the criminalization of press offences, there are the particular circumstances prevailing in Cameroon. The problems of corruption within the judicial system, the business community, the police and the press add to the confusion of an already very complex situation.
Let us just take the case of the press. Reporters Without Borders is not fooled by the behaviour of certain public figures who use and abuse the press with the help of editors to promote a hidden agenda. Cameroon is not unique in this respect. In the course of the past year or so, Reporters Without Borders has criticised journalists in Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Chad and elsewhere who sell space in sporadic publications to the highest bidder to attack certain public figures or praise others. The same goes for the reprehensible way certain political or business clans manipulate the press to promote their interests. The lack training and resources of the African press does not explain everything.
To combat these abuses, Reporters Without Borders thinks the Cameroonian press needs major reforms. The law must be amended, prison sentences must be abolished and self-regulation must be introduced. Nothing will change if this is not done. Our organisation stands ready to help the Cameroonian government in order to give a chance to responsible journalists who believe in their profession and who want to work in a open and honest environment in which they would be able to have their voices heard and their principles respected.
If the newspaper editors who are being sued go to prison, we will publicly reiterate what we are telling you today. That, like you, we think that something has gone awry in Cameroon. That a major part of the press is behaving in an utterly unacceptable and often disgraceful manner. That it is hard to respect the press when it does little to deserve our respect. But that the law as its stands offers no appropriate response to this problem. And we hope that the current crisis will at least serve to bring about a change.
I am entirely at your disposal if you would like to discuss these problems further.