Cameroon’s human rights record has deteriorated in recent years. Various NGOs and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture have highlighted extra-judicial executions, protracted detention without trial, torture of detainees and appalling prison conditions.
Paul Biya first became President in 1982 and has remained in power ever since. In April 2008 Cameroon’s parliament passed a controversial amendment to the constitution enabling Biya to run for a further term of office in 2011. Although Commonwealth observers accepted the result, opposition parties alleged widespread fraud.
The government rigidly controls the media and journalists endure considerable restrictions. The latest victim of this tight hold on free expression is author Bertrand Teyou. In a case brought by the state, Teyou was accused of insulting Biya’s wife in his 2010 book La Belle de la république bananière: Chantal Biya, de la rue au palais (‘The Belle of the Banana Republic: Chantal Biya, From the Streets to the Palace’). He was also charged with attempting to organise a public reading from the book.
Teyou was arrested on 3 November 2010. Two weeks later, he was found guilty of ‘insult to character’ and organising an ‘illegal demonstration’, and ordered to pay 2,030,150 Central African CFA francs (£2,760 at the time of writing) in fines and costs. As he was unable to pay the fines, Teyou was returned to prison, where he is currently serving a two-year sentence.
During his trial, Teyou had no recourse to a defence lawyer; he claimed that lawyers were too scared to take up his case. This lack of legal representation meant he was unable to meet the ten-day deadline to appeal his sentence.
The author had reportedly notified the authorities of his intention to hold a reading but was arrested before it could take place. Copies of his book were seized and destroyed. The book has not been officially banned but Teyou says intimidation tactics have been used against sales outlets to prevent them from selling his books.
In an interview from his prison cell, Teyou said:
My book is the free expression of a citizen. I hold no grudge against the First Lady but I refuse to live in a country where she has excessive control over the lives of citizens. I cannot stand the fact that our country is rotten and no one seems to be bothered about doing something to turn things around. We are entitled to rise against the injustice that is crippling our country. We cannot let evil go unquestioned. This is the attitude I adopt in my writing. The struggle continues in spite of the travails I am going through right now. Each hurdle reinvigorates me. This system is bad for everyone.
He has written two other books: L’Antécode Biya (‘The Biya Anti-Code’) about the president, for which he has reportedly also been subject to harassment, and Sortir de l’impasse (‘Getting Out of the Dead End’).
In February 2011, Teyou went on hunger strike in protest at his ill-treatment in prison. He is suffering from health problems linked to the poor diet, including severe bleeding from haemorrhoids. Teyou says that he can receive medical treatment at Douala General Hospital only if he can pay for it. He is also charged for a space to sleep in prison. If he can’t pay, he must spend the night in the prison yard.
He’s not alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that on 25 March 2011 Jean-Marie Tchatchouang, editor of the weekly Paroles, was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 185,200 CFA francs (£250) for ‘criminal defamation’. The court also ordered Tchatchouang to pay one million CFA francs (£1,358) in damages and suspended his newspaper indefinitely.
The charges were linked to the publication in Paroles of letters from current and former personnel of Douala’s main bus company, Socatur. The letters alleged mismanagement and abusive employment practice by CEO Jean Ernest Ngallè Bibéhé and his wife, the human resources manager.
According to the CPJ, another Cameroon journalist, Raphaël Nkamtchuen, editor of the periodical La Boussole, is also facing a prison sentence for investigating a leaked official document and alleging executive interference in a high-profile corruption investigation.
Readers may like to send appeals protesting the conviction and imprisonment of author Bertrand Teyou in violation of his right to freedom of expression and assembly, guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cameroon is party; calling for his immediate and unconditional release; and urging the government to amend the law on defamation and refer cases to civil courts.
Send appeals to:
President Paul Biya
Fax: +237 22 22 08 70
Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Messages may also be sent via the Presidency’s website: http://www.prc.cm
Update: The last remaining Cuban journalist in prison has been released. Habana Press director, Alberto Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández (LR, August 2010), arrived in Spain on 8 April 2011. Du Bouchet had served almost two years of a three-year sentence.