“The choice was this: reveal my sources and destroy my reputation or die protecting them.”
There are few bright spots of independent journalism left in Cameroon. The central African country was once acclaimed for its media diversity, but under the decades long rule of Paul Biya the country has tumbled to 145th out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index. In March 2018 news organisations were served a notice from the powerful National Communication Council that political reporting was now banned. Journalists who flout these new rules face being charged under terrorism laws.
The situation in the political field is just as bad. A prominent opposition figure was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for the crime of “plotting against” president Biya, a decision that Amnesty International condemned. In the English-speaking south of the country, civilians are caught between a violent separatist movement and a heavy-handed government crackdown. Internet has been blocked in the region since October.
In the face of all of this there are still journalists battling to hold the government to account, at great personal risk.
Charles Atangana knows all too well the challenges of being a journalist in Cameroon.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Atangana was an investigative reporter covering economic issues for the now-defunct La Sentinelle as well as Le Messager, Cameroon’s first independent newspaper, and frequently pursued articles about government mismanagement and corruption.
His reporting on the lack of transparency in government oil revenues ran on the front-page for three consecutive days and a separate story on bribery in school admissions implicated the country’s then minister of education. His aim was always to “humanise the figures by showing the story behind the numbers.”
In 2004, Atangana helped organize a press conference for the Southern Cameroons National Council, a group supporting independence for Cameroon’s English-speaking minority in the country’s southwest. During the event, Atangana was kidnapped and taken to a military detention center in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, where he was beaten and tortured by captors demanding to know who his government sources were.
Atangana says that from the way he was interrogated, he believes that his arrest was ordered by the education minister, Joseph Owona, a longtime Biya loyalist who went on to become head of FIFA’s Cameroon association. Owona did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Reached via Facebook, his son, Mathias Eric Owona Nguini, denied his father’s involvement in Atangana’s arrest, writing that some journalists “want to justify their exile by trying to get political asylum even with false data.”
Atangana was able to escape from prison with the help of family, and knew he could no longer remain safely in Cameroon. He eventually made his way to the United Kingdom, where after a lengthy struggle, he was granted asylum.
Today Atangana lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is a freelance journalist and former officer for National Union of Journalists.
What first attracted you to journalism?
Atangana: “From the age of 6, we had a classroom activity to encourage those of us who could read a newspaper to tear out a story from the weekend that interested us and then stick it up on the wall. Our teacher called it the “wallpaper journal”.
(In college) I joined the press club. We would sometimes receive journalists who had worked on the radio to come in and speak to us and try to give us the basics of journalism.
I wasn’t very interested in the job at that time because these guys who came to visit the college and explain what journalism is… they weren’t rich guys. They way they dressed- it wasn’t impressive.
But my mind changed after growing up. I would sometimes see journalists walking around with a camera. It seemed exciting, all of a sudden.
I said “oh right, I’d like to do this. I want to be on the inside”.
How did you end up focussing on economic investigations?
Atangana: “When I started my journalism career no one was really interested in economic issues. Whenever you would see such stories it was usually just the press release from the government for IMF funding… No one was focussed on investigating; trying to work out what was behind the figures. I had received corporate training from the World Bank, where I used to work. So myself and some colleagues from state media, we decided to create a group of economic journalists.
We were sick of seeing announcements of projects from the government saying things like “we are going to build 600 classrooms in provinces across Cameroon” and once the money had been taken and the work had been done there was nobody to travel across the country to check- because if you did, you’d find only maybe 5 or 10 had been built, and the money had all been spent.
What was Le Messager like and how did you end up working there?
Atangana: “The editorial policy at Le Messager was to criticise everything the government was doing wrong.
For example, when the budget was adopted by the government, we would ask trade unions and business what they thought about the issue.
We would take those conversations and make them into articles. The opposition politicians would be using our same questions in government. We were very influential.
All of this, the government was not ready to hear.”
How would you describe the pressures that journalists face in Cameroon?
Atangana: “Corruption of the press in Cameroon takes many forms.
When a journalist writes critically of government figures they might get approached while they are out drinking and get offered a bribe. They might ask you to soften your writing and maybe put some honey in there (sic) about a government minister or someone else. A journalist in Cameroon does not make very much money and so this can be an effective way (of silencing them), but other times there’s threats or beatings.
What were you doing on the day you got detained?
Atangana: “I had just introduced the speakers at a conference and I was called outside. I was confronted by three men who were dressed as journalists, though as it turns out they were not. One of them said to me “Charles, we’ve followed your writing, we’ve seen your appearances on TV…” and they began to hit me; first slapping my left cheek and then my right before kicking me down to the ground.
I was taken to the military police cell in Douala- a place where they usually kept serious trouble makers, so I suppose that made me one of them. I was there for a couple of weeks and nobody knew where I had went.
I picked up from the questions they were asking that it was the Education Minister who had ordered my arrest.
What did they want from you?
Atangana: “I was asked about my sources. That was the main thing they wanted to know: who in government was giving me my information. I had very good contacts in government committees and it was clear to them from my reporting that somebody had been giving me private information.
The second night was painful because I was beaten properly. I remember, the first night I had slept on the floor in my underwear but on the second night they made me sleep without my underwear. They were even using wires tied around my genitals to try and put pressure on me to reveal my sources.
I was taught to always protect my sources. When I was a student we had a journalist from Washington come to speak with us. She told us that we must protect our sources at any cost.
The choice was this: reveal my source and destroy my reputation or die protecting them.”
So, how did you escape?
Atangana: “After two weeks I realised that this was my end. It was easy for them to kill me- nobody knew where I was. They were feeding me so poorly I got diarrhea, so I asked them to take me to hospital. There, I met a guy who was about to get released and he had a phone. I managed to tell this guy to get word out to my Dad.
I was with somebody from the military police, but he didn’t know who I was or why I was there and so I promised him money. He allowed me to go out to the car park (where my father was waiting).
My sister has a friend who travels to France on business and I managed to organise a journey with him.
How have you been treated in the UK?
Atangana: “The first few years were very difficult. It took me a couple of months to recover from the ordeal and I started to come back to life.
I feel the discrimination in the asylum system in the UK is strong. You are spending all your time speaking to people in organisations about a country where nobody among the staff has ever been. It was very difficult.”
And at one point you were facing deportation…
Atangana: “I was arrested in 2008 because it appeared my asylum claim was rejected. They didn’t believe I was a real journalist or that I was under threat.
We spoke to an old colleague from the World Bank, he sent a statement. A colleague from Le Messager did the same. The NUJ in Scotland helped a lot and the Committee to Protect Journalists in the U.S. also wrote about me and forwarded a statement on the situation of press freedom in Cameroon.
There was a public campaign outside and a petition with over 7000 signatures that we sent to the Home Office. All of this allowed me to get released and I was granted [asylum] in 2011 after seven years in limbo... seven years of fighting.”
How is press freedom in Cameroon today?
Antagana: “We are few today, those of us in Cameroon who have fought very hard to keep our independence. Some, whether because of family pressures or because of poverty, have had to compromised themselves.
I was working to make the country a better place. When you write something and see that the rules change- when you have impact- then you are happy. People change and you see a slight benefit for the country. These are the principles that I am very proud of.”
Do you see things getting better anytime soon?
Atangana: “I think it will take time, but there is a better future coming. What we need is strong cooperation and industry standards of better pay and support so that journalists aren’t going begging for somebody to corrupt them.
There’s still time. There are things we can do to make it much better.”
This is an expanded and updated version of an article that first appeared in Index on Censorship in February 2018.