Biya Moves to Gag The Press

Paul Biya

A presidential decree signed early this week has transformed the erstwhile docile consultative organ that advises government on the activities of the press into a powerfully repressive structure that reserves the authority to sanction media organs in Cameroon in a style reminiscent of the censorship years. From now on, the National Communication Council, NCC, can temporarily suspend any ‘irregular’ media for a period not exceeding 6 months or it can simply suspend the activities of a defaulting media organ definitively, the new decree provides.

Although the sanctions provided in the text reorganizing the National Communication Council could affect both the public and private media, experience in Cameroon suggests that the private media are more likely to fall prey to the measures, because the Yaounde regime already has a stranglehold on state media. The National Communication Council is fashioned to be a politically and administratively independent structure but it derives its budget from public subventions through the Prime Minister’s Office while its members are appointed by President Paul Biya himself. It is such dependence on the public treasury and the political authority of the State that leaves analysts worried that the organ could be stage-managed to use the new measures and mull the private press which is known to be the main check to the overarching powers of the Yaounde regime at the moment.

The new measures contained in Section 6 of the decree signed by President Biya last 23 January were previously attributes reserved to authorities of the Territorial Administration ministry who wantonly exploited it prior to the implementation of the so-called Freedom Laws in the 1990s to crush and limit press freedom. At the time, administrative authorities summarily played the role of ‘editor’ at all press organs cutting and discarding stories deemed unfriendly to the regime. Organs that violated the prescriptions of the regime officials were literally suspended or banned from carrying out media activity in Cameroon.

To equally facilitate the active role of the remodeled National Communication Council in regulating the press in Cameroon, the recent Presidential text provides for an ordinary session of the organ every quarter, up from the previous two meetings per year. Decision making at the organ has also been rendered less stringent with a new possibility to have resolutions passed by only a 2/3rd majority of members, down from the previous three quarter. Consultative opinions expressed by the organ could also be simply passed by consensus.

News of the modification in the role of the National Communication Council has left the Cameroon Trade Union of Employed Journalists distraught. “Journalists expected it [the NCC] to be a peer organ set up by media authorities themselves even though the State needed to assign a representative,” a release from the secretariat of the union states.