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Unconstitutional Laws Limit Free Speech and Punish Journalists In Cameroon

As more and more Africans are connecting to the internet, governments are cracking down on dissent online. In Cameroon, vague laws are used to punish criticism of the government as crimes against the state. Authorities have arrested and tortured activists, journalists and members of Cameroon’s minorities.

A Red Pin on Cameroon of the World Map © hyotographics /

October 03, 2023 01:45 EDT

According to the preamble of the 1996 Cameroonian constitution, every Cameroonian has “the freedom of communication, of expression, of the press.” The African Declaration on the Rights and Freedoms of the Internet, which Cameroon has not yet endorsed, goes further:

Everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, through the Internet and digital technologies. The exercise of this right should not be subject to any restrictions except those which are provided for by law, pursue a legitimate aim expressly provided for by international human rights law, and are necessary and proportionate for that legitimate aim.

In today’s Africa, we are still far from achieving such an idyllic state of affairs. While activists have imagined the internet like a long, quiet river, facilitating exchange and communication, it has instead become a whitewater fraught with danger.

Cameroon is an area of particular concern. The French Development Agency’s May 2023 report on digital freedoms in French-speaking countries described wide-ranging surveillance and legal restrictions on internet activity in the country. The report gave Cameroon the rating of D, or “non-free.” Only Chad, Djibouti and Equatorial Guinea rank lower among the 26 nations studied.

In spite of Cameroon’s constitutional protection of free expression, it uses vaguely defined laws to crack down on speech it considers undesirable. A 2010 law on cybersecurity and cybercrime provides for fines and prison sentences for anyone who “disseminates information that cannot be verified. In practice, this law is applied to punish people who openly challenge information disseminated by the government. This is why, in the past, we have seen human rights defenders arrested, imprisoned and beaten for having shared reliable information on social networks revealing the financial embezzlement of certain members of the government.

In 2018, journalist Mimi Mefo Takambou was arrested for “disseminating false information” following a tweet.

At the end of 2019, authorities accused English-speaking journalist Samuel Wazizi of terrorism and arrested him. He reportedly died in detention after being tortured.

Sometimes, activists are subjected to arrest without any legal basis at all. Peace activist Abdul Karim Ali, for example, was thrown in prison last year and held for 200 days without a criminal charge. When it finally did levy charges, the state accused Abdul Karim of “hostility against the fatherland,” “failure to report,” “secession,” and “rebellion.” His true crime? Posting a video denouncing the armed forces for torture.

Cameroon’s internet surveillance regime has targeted members of the country’s English-speaking minority and religious minorities such as Pentecostal Christians. It also targets gay and lesbian Cameroonians, criminalizing “sexual propositions” to a person of one’s own sex online. Content restrictions and punishments for prohibited speech are deep, pervasive and severe.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for all citizens. It is especially vital for journalists. The Munich Charter charges journalists to tell the truth, because the public has a right to know the truth. The Cameroonian state must therefore respect this freedom, which is a cornerstone of democracy, by protecting journalists, repealing laws that restrict these freedoms, abandoning illegal surveillance and releasing all those imprisoned for peacefully expressing their ideas or opinions.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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