Cameroon: "There Is Growing Scepticism Towards Many Journalists"

interview

Dr Bernard Sakah, Lecturer, Pan-African University, Yaounde, revisits the origin of fake news and hate speech in Cameroon.

How serious is the problem of fake news and hate speech in the Cameroon media?

The increasing perpetration of fake news and hate speech across the media landscape in Cameroon is becoming more preoccupying everyday to different stakeholders. The government, media practitioners, politicians, civil society activists, among other categories of persons in Cameroon, have continued to express deep concerns vis-à-vis these phenomena which have gained more grounds through traditional and social media spaces.

Not only have there been unending debates in Cameroon and the Diaspora over their origins and consequences, but there has equally been visible translation of hate messages and fake news into further divisions of Cameroonians. This is along tribal, social, cultural, economic and political lines. Without pointing any accusing fingers, it is evident that such visible manifestations of hatred and fake information dissemination urgently need to be tackled from their sources to avoid more devastating consequences.

What explains this situation (the origin/causes)?

There are quite a plethora of causes and origins of hate speech and fake news in Cameroon. Among the most recent is the ensuing violent conflict in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon since 2016; the political environment before, during and after the October 2018 presidential elections and the series of socio-economic frustrations plaguing Cameroonians from all walks of life.

In fact, the high rate of unemployment among young and qualified Cameroonians; persistent feeling of political exclusion, if not marginalisation of Cameroonians from certain geopolitical origins; social injustice; concentration of wealth in the hands few privileged individuals and families in the country; poverty; corruption and poor governance; largely account for the prevailing cankerworm.

It is equally worth stressing that media illiteracy, ignorance of existing media-related norms and standards, advent of social media and increasing citizen journalism, the precarious income situation and living conditions of media practitioners who are ready to compromise professional standards to earn a living, further exacerbates the situation. Meanwhile, the historical, cultural, social, economic and political evolution of Cameroon cannot be ignored when seeking solutions to the dangerous seeds of hate speech and fake news.

Who then is to blame for the proliferation of fake news and hate speech in Cameroon?

I think every Cameroonian today must be honest to acknowledge that we all have contributed in one way or the other in perpetrating fake news and hate speech. Consequently, we must equally assume the collective responsibility to counter such divisive and evil forces irrespective of our social status in order to urgently restore a more convivial spirit for social cohesion, social justice, and sustainable peace in Cameroon.

What is the impact of the phenomena on journalism and the society as a whole?

Fake news and hate speech have drastically transformed the media landscape in particular and the Cameroonian society in general. For instance, the masses have increasingly become sceptical of journalism in Cameroon based on unprofessional and fake content disseminated through certain TV, radio stations, newspapers and online platforms (blogs). This has equally boosted the emergence/prevalence of citizen journalists, independent bloggers and freelance journalists, many of whom rarely seek to comply with most journalism standards, including ethics and deontology.

Everybody wants to be credited with "Breaking The News," irrespective of whether they are professional journalists or not; thus there is growing scepticism towards many journalists. In fact, it has become more difficult to distinguish between objective, factual and ethical reporting by trained and untrained (citizen) journalists in Cameroon who are not only visibly biased, but more evidently find it challenging to separate their personal stance from news stories.

Consequently, some journalists and media outlets are known for being used or instrumentalized by selfish politicians to pursue their individual agendas at the peril of peace, social cohesion, national integration and prosperity of the country.

What can be done and by who, to mitigate or eradicate the problem?

The government needs to take urgent decisions and more concrete actions towards resolving the root causes of hate speech and fake news in Cameroon. Secondly, everyone, irrespective of domains of activities and social status, have to respect the laws governing the media landscape and cyberspace in the country. More so, the National Communication Council (NCC) needs to be further empowered to champion their watchdog role and effective regulation of the media landscape.

There is urgent need to intensify media and social media literacy sensitization campaigns as well as foster digital rights and inherent responsibilities. Journalists and media outlets need to generate and disseminate more messages of love, peace, and social cohesion to counter the narrative of hate speech and fake news via all media spaces.

You recently defended a PhD on social media use. Could you please share with us your findings and the recommendations you made in your thesis?

Oh yes, I had to critically investigate "Social media regulation and citizens' participation in democratic governance in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon," given the prevailing situation there. The study found out that more than 60 per cent of respondents have been using several social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, mainly with mobile phones (Smart & Androids phones), for over 5-15 years.

Although over 70 per cent of respondents are not aware of existing laws governing social media in particular and cyberspace in general across Cameroon, over 50 per cent of them argued that an increase in social media regulation will significantly decrease citizens' participation in democratic governance tenets such as e-political campaigns, e-policy consultations, e-voting, e-advocacy, e-petitioning, transparency, accountability, fairness, participation, freedoms, etc.

Participants further advanced challenges such as hate speech, fake news, abuse of human dignity and privacy rights, cyber terrorism, high cost, and limited digital infrastructure among other cyber threats that increasingly impede social media regulation, citizens' participation and democratic governance.

Despite various challenges, the study concluded on an optimistic note that social media remains very important and inevitable in fostering the fourth wave of democratization and good governance in this digital era. Hence, the urgent need to consider adopting the democratic multi-stakeholder model. This involves continuous engagement and active involvement of cyberspace stakeholders to consistently conceive, formulate, implement, monitor and evaluate all regulatory frameworks related to social media; cognizant of their inherent implications on citizens' participation in democratic governance for Cameroon in particular and Africa in general.

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