Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reiterates its call for the release of Paul Chouta, a well-known Cameroonian journalist and whistleblower who has been held arbitrarily for nearly two years and has been subjected to an absurdly drawn-out trial on a charge of defamation and spreading fake news. After 26 hearings, the trial's penultimate stage is finally scheduled for 6 May.
A reporter for the Cameroun Web media outlet, Paul Chouta has been detained since 28 May 2019 as a result of a complaint brought by the novelist Calixthe Belaya over a video of her in a heated argument with a man that he posted online without getting her permission.
Chouta's provisional detention and trial over a video lasting just a few minutes have already dragged on for an absurd amount of time. On 6 May, the judges are due to meet behind closed doors to discuss the verdict they will issue at a later date. Chouta has already been held almost as long as the maximum sentence they could pass, which is six months under the penal code and two years under Cameroon's cyber-crime law.
He is being held in Yaoundé's main prison, one reserved for the biggest offenders. His cellmates include men charged with terrorism, with links with Boko Haram or links with separatist movements in Cameroon's English-speaking regions. In May 2020, he was treated for Covid-19 after displaying symptoms of the virus, which is circulating in Cameroon's prisons.
"There is an enormous discrepancy between what this journalist is alleged to have done and the treatment he has received for the past two years," said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF's Africa desk. "The substance of this case could have been examined long ago. What grounds could there be for still detaining him aside from the desire to sideline a journalist who bothers people? We call for his release."
Before his arrest, Chouta was often threatened for reporting that was critical of the authorities, Cameroun Web editor Emmanuel Vitus told RSF. In January 2019, a few months before his arrest, he was the target of a knife attack by three individuals who have never been identified by the authorities. After his arrest, people close to him were subjected to repeated intimidation attempts by the police.
Arbitrary arrests of journalists are common in Cameroon and often lead to long spells in prison. The victims include Amadou Vamoulké, 71, the former head of state-owned Cameroon Radio & Television (CRTV), who has been detained on a spurious charge for nearly five years and is being subjected to an interminable trial.
He is in poor health but no measures have been taken to protect him against Covid-19, which is circulating as much in Kondengui prison, where he is being held, as it is in Yaoundé's main prison.
Emmanuel Mbombog Mbog Matip, a journalist arrested on a fake news charge in August 2020, is also being held arbitrarily in Kondengui prison. He was detained provisionally for an initial period of six months that expired on 7 March, but he is still being held.
Cameroon is ranked 134th out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.