|Clovis Atata, the Post’s editor at large, on Bibi Ngota’s death and press freedom|
|Written by The Standard Tribune|
|Monday, 17 May 2010 17:37|
What lessons can Cameroon media learn from the death of Ngota?
I think the first important lesson we can learn from Bibi Ngota’s death is that the media environment in Cameroon is very hostile. The laws of the country don’t protect journalists enough and state officials virtually have the licence to harass, detain and torture journalists on spurious accusations. Authorities abhor investigative journalism and do everything to discourage journalists who don’t limit their coverage to seminars, workshops, symposia and government-organised ceremonies.
Can the circumstances of his death be discussed separately from the suspected poor professionalism on his part?
I don’t think so. Bibi Ngota came in possession of the document which led to his arrest because he was a journalist. From the facts that have emerged so far, he was acting as a journalist. If he had published that information, we would have been able to judge whether he did a good or bad job. But he was never allowed to complete his investigations.
It is true that the authorities are claiming that he tried to blackmail. If that were the case, they should have followed the usual procedure used to catch blackmailers. That means playing along until he is caught red-handed in the process of receiving money or whatever he was demanding. Since that was not done, I don’t believe he tried to blackmail anybody.
By the way, those who don’t have any skeletons in their cupboards don’t fear blackmail. If somebody comes to me and says, “If you don’t pay out 10 million francs to me, I’ll report to the police that you broke into a bank”, I’ll not be impressed. The reason is simply that I’ve never broken into any bank in my life. If I had broken into a bank, I’ll probably panic. So, I’m wondering why the Secretary General at the Presidency behaved as if he was very scared.
Is it possible to weed out "bad" journalism from Cameroon? Should there be an attempt to do so? How?
We first have to define “bad journalism”. Journalism is a liberal profession – if profession it is – and the market normally carries out a kind of “natural” selection. In a free society where all journalists have the same or similar opportunities to excel, the public separates the grain from the chaff amongst journalists. The public judges them from their work and not from the assessment of the minister of communication.
There are usually regulation mechanisms in society to prevent reckless journalists from causing irreparable harm to society. I agree that there should be laws that for instance forbid journalists and citizens from preaching hate and genocide or revealing strategic military secrets in times of war. But overall, citizens should be free to express whatever opinion they want, including secession and revolution.
The problem in Cameroon is that media laws were not fashioned to protect citizens from abuse by the media, but to prevent journalists from holding public officials to account. When the government of Cameroon accuses anybody of practicing bad journalism, I highly suspect that person was either critical or trying to uncover wrongdoing by government officials.
More and more the definition of a journalist is becoming an issue. Who in your view is a journalist?
A journalist, to me, is anyone who gathers and disseminates information for mass consumption. There are professional and amateur journalists. Professionals earn their living from journalism. Amateurs don’t. In many countries, there is increasing appreciation of the role of so-called “citizen journalists”. These are ordinary people who try to play the role of journalists without being paid for it. They actually have been playing a very important role. I’ll give two examples. First, during the July 7, 2005 London terrorist attacks, there would have been no images if not of the work of “citizen journalists”. You know the attacks took place on the subway – that is the underground -- and it is ordinary people who used their mobile phones to shoot the first images and send SMS’ about what was going on. Second, during the post-election protests in Iran, the government of that country made it difficult for journalists to cover. Ordinary people used their mobile phones and the world was able to know what was happening.
I don’t buy the argument that a journalist is one who has graduated from journalism school. I graduated from a journalism school myself and I know what I’m talking about.
What is the way forward?
The government, which practically controls the National Assembly, as if it was a department of the interior ministry, should scrap the repressive laws in this country and replace them with citizen-friendly laws after a broad-based national dialogue. I’m not only talking of press laws; we need an overhaul of the whole body of laws in this country. When that is done, we can now make a fresh start and work towards rebuilding this country and providing an environment where genuine democracy can thrive; where MPs can say what they think without fear of terrible reprisals; where civil society can flourish; where the government does not determine who succeeds and fails in business; and where both ordinary citizens and journalists can speak freely without fear of being taken to prison to be allowed to die.
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|Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 17:54|