In May 2013, PEN International and Internet Sans Frontières (ISF) attended the United Nations’ second review of Cameroon’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.
PEN and ISF welcome the concerns raised by States and non-governmental organisations relating to freedom of expression and the persecution of writers in Cameroon. In particular, the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Estonia and Germany called for an end to the arbitrary detention of and attacks against journalists, and the abolition of the criminal defamation laws (Article 78 of Act No 96/0) which are commonly used to silence journalists in the country.
However, we were disappointed by the Cameroonian government’s response to these concerns. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo, claimed that the States’ critiques of the treatment of journalists and concerns about press freedom in Cameroon were unfounded. He also said that no journalist in Cameroon is in prison for exercising his profession.
One case had clearly slipped the Minister’s mind. On 25 March 2013, a court in Douala sentenced editor Jean-Marie Tchatchouang to two months in prison for defamation after his newspaper Paroles revealed mismanagement and abuse in the city’s main bus company, Socatur. Tchatchouang, who was also ordered to pay damages of 2 million CFA francs (US$3,900) and a fine of 435,910 CFA francs (US$852), was jailed immediately in Douala’s New Bell Prison. This is the second time the editor has been convicted of defamation as a result of complaints filed by the CEO of Socatur and his wife.
Moreover, in Cameroon, as in other repressive regimes, journalists and writers are frequently charged with common law crimes such as forgery, unlawful assembly or instigating demonstrations in clear reprisal for their critical views and reporting.
Once such case is that of writer Enoh Meyomesse, who was sentenced by a military court to seven years in prison for alleged armed robbery and illegal sale of gold. Meyomesse has always maintained his innocence and was convicted despite the inability of the prosecution to produce credible proof and witnesses.
In a brief audience with Minister Mbonjo following the UPR session, PEN and ISF welcomed the efforts made by the Cameroonian government to secure wider internet access, including the cancellation of the 2013 fee schedule of the para-public company CAMTEL. We then raised Meyomesse’s case.
The Foreign Minister insisted that Meyomesse’s case was ‘not related to human rights’, the writer had committed a common law crime and was sentenced by an ‘independent court’. As a result, he said, government ministers were unable to intervene.
PEN and ISF pointed out that Meyomesse was in fact tried and sentenced by a military court under the authority of the Cameroonian Ministry of Defence and therefore of the President. However, Meyomesse’s appeal is soon to be transferred to a civil court thanks to the efforts of his defence lawyers. PEN and ISF appealed to the Minister to help ensure that Meyomesse’s right to a defence and to a fair trial be respected. At this point the meeting was ended.
PEN International and ISF continue to press for the release of Enoh Meyomesse and all writers and journalists currently detained in Cameroon.
Meyomesse’s is one of a number of cases highlighted in a report on free expression abuses in Cameroon submitted by PEN International, ISF and the Committee to Protect Journalists to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as part of the Universal Periodic Review process. The report is available to download in English or French.
Here at English PEN we are aiming to raise awareness of his case and much-needed funds through a crowd-sourced translation of his poetry collection Poème carcéral: Poésie du pénitencier de Kondengui (Les Editions de Kamerun, November 2012) from French to English. We are posting translations of Meyomesse’s poems on our website regularly, and will be publishing e-book and print-on-demand collections later this year. **If you would like to be informed when the book is available, please email firstname.lastname@example.org**
Watch the UPR session on Cameroon here: http://webtv.un.org/watch/cameroon-review-16th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/2343635048001/ (statement on media and press freedom starts around 1 hour 25 minutes in).