Carefully chosen words
The Anglophone regions of Cameroon are drifting into an open armed conflict. The strikes called for by the Anglophone teachers’ and lawyers’ unions in 2016 (see comment by Jonathan Bashi in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2017/04, Debate) have triggered a larger movement that fights for the rights of the English-speaking minority to have a say in political, economic, social, cultural, educational and legislative processes. Cameroon’s government reacts with harsh repressions against the unions and civil-society leaders. Since 2017, the protests have resulted in violent confrontations between Anglophone pro-independence fighters and security forces, followed by indiscriminate mass arrests, burning of villages and human-rights abuses on both sides. Many civilians have died in the conflict.
The ongoing crisis is the best proof that conflict-sensitive journalism is needed in Cameroon. The Presbyterian Church in Cameroon (PCC) has seen this need already before the conflict broke out and initiated its own community radio in 2014 in Buea, the capital of one of the two Anglophone regions of the country. CBS Radio 95.3 MHz, as it is called, works together with other community broadcasters to foster conflict-sensitive reporting, peace and civil-society focused programmes and a permanent exchange between community media organisations.
Bread for the World, an aid agency of the Protestant regional and free churches in Germany, supports the radio station through the Civil Peace Service (CPS). A 2014 survey and situational analysis revealed that people in the local communities highly preferred community media to the government-owned radio. However, most of the journalists at CBS Radio and other community media outlets lacked basic journalistic skills, and the competition amongst them was not healthy. Sensational journalism was on the rise, and the risk of media inducing conflicts was high.
Thus, the idea of creating a permanent network came up. In 2016, the PCC invited media practitioners from 24 media, including print, audio, visual and online, in the South-West region to a meeting at CBS Radio. The goal was to come together and work in synergy for the common good of the community. After several meetings, the Cameroon Community Media Network (CCMN) was officially founded and legally registered in May 2017. It is a non-partisan, non-profit-making and non-religious association. Its members have benefited from a series of workshops, capacity-building seminars and in-house trainings. Today, the CCMN has more than 70 members and operates in four out of Cameroon’s ten regions. It is divided into two chapters: one for South West and Littoral Cameroon and one for North West and West Cameroon.
The network’s expansion is owed to the conflicts in Cameroon. Besides the Anglophone crisis, there is the Boko Haram insurgency in the North and Far North regions and armed banditry and a refugee crisis in the East. The dispute of the results of the 2018 presidential election caused pockets of resistance in the Littoral, West and Central regions. All in all, there is a dire need for peace journalism in all ten regions of Cameroon.
Terrorism law used to silence journalists
Atia Tilarious Azohnwi, editor with The Sun Newspaper in Buea, says: “The CCMN with its notion of peace journalism has offered me a more balanced perspective of war and conflict reporting. If I had known this before, I wouldn’t have been detained for almost one year.” The journalist was incarcerated for his critical coverage of the crisis in the Anglophone areas. He was one of eight journalists who were arrested at the beginning of 2017 in the context of the failed negotiations between the Anglophone activists and the Cameroonian government and charged before a military tribunal under the new anti-terrorism law.
The law came into force in 2014 as part of the fight against Boko Haram. However, it quickly became apparent that the law was also being used to silence critical journalists. In July 2015, a correspondent for Radio France International was arrested for supporting Boko Haram activities in the north and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. In addition, critical radio and television stations were closed, broadcasting licenses were temporarily withdrawn and new applications for broadcasting licenses not processed. The measures were accompanied by a three-month internet blackout in the two English-speaking regions and mass arrests of civilians. The journalists and most of the detained people are set free again – but the uncertainty as to how the government will react to critical reporting and demonstrations is increasing.
With the escalation of the crisis, journalists experience intense pressure, not only by the military or the government: pro-independence fighters threaten journalists who do not collaborate with the separatists. Ambe Macmillian Awa is a journalist and blogger for the community-based online news platform The Statesman and president of the Cameroon Association of English-Speaking Journalists in the North West region. He was abducted in February this year by separatist fighters and only released after intense pressure by the CCMN, journalism unions and other media houses. He says: ”Since my stories are now void of hate language, of escalating angling and provocative pictures, they help in deescalating the crisis we find ourselves in.”
The CCMN notes a big difference concerning the choice of words and writing style of its members, as they endeavour to eliminate hate speech and use language that fosters peace. It is the only network in Cameroon that promotes peace journalism as an alternative to conventional journalism and that builds capacities in peace- and conflict-sensitive journalism. Thanks to this work, CCMN members have completely transformed the media landscape by giving voice to the voiceless in times of violence and implanting the notion of community media, that is media for the community, from the community and owned by the community. This concept enhances ordinary people’s participation and provides a platform for coordinated exchange of ideas – thereby enhancing social cohesion and contributing to a peaceful society.
The CCMN has produced radio spots, jingles, sweepers and micro programmes with the watchword “We stand for peace” which are played on all member media organs. In a next step, the network is collaborating with Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to create an archiving platform for the exchange and storage of radio programmes, making it relevant not only to the Cameroonian media landscape, but also in Central Africa.
Cameroon Community Media Network:
Rev Geraldine Fobang is station manager of the community radio CBS Radio 95.3 MHz in Buea in the South-West region and president of the Cameroon Community Media Network (CCMN) in the South-West and Littoral regions.
Rosaline Akah Obah is station manager of the community radio CBS Radio 101.0 MHz in Bamenda in the North-West region and president of the CCMN in the North-West and West regions.
Alexander Vojvoda is sociologist and community media activist. From 2014 to 2019 he worked as a consultant for the CCMN on behalf of the Civil Peace Service.