Journalist Paul Chouta has been sentenced to 23 months' imprisonment and ordered to pay several million CFA francs in fines and damages after being held for two years awaiting a trial verdict in Cameroon. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplores this excessive and unjustified penalty which is a serious attack on press freedom.
The judge's verdict was finally issued yesterday after being postponed 27 times. Paul Chouta, a reporter for the Cameroun Web media outlet and a whistleblower critical of the government, was the subject of a complaint brought by the novelist Calixthe Belaya alleging defamation and the publication of fake news.
The judge sentenced him to 23 months in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 160,000 CFA francs and a further 2 million CFA francs in damages (a total of some 3,200 euros).
He was alleged to have posted online a video of her in a heated argument with a man without seeking her permission. The video lasted just a few minutes and as a result he was held for two years in pre-trial detention, the maximum sentence for the charges against him.
The time he has already served in prison is more than the sentence but he must still raise the funds to pay the financial penalties to secure his release from Yaoundé's main jail, normally reserved for the most serious offenders.
"Not only has Paul Chouta had to face court proceedings and a long period of detention, but he must now pay an exorbitant sum to be able finally to leave prison," said RSF. "The verdict is the culmination of a farcical case. There is no justification for such a long detention and final verdict unless it is an attempt to silence a troublesome voice. We call on Cameroon's justice authorities to take firm action to protect freedom of news and information and to ensure that journalists have the right to fair treatment by the judicial system in the country."
Before his detention the journalist had been the target of threats over stories that were critical of the government. In January 2019, a few months after his arrest, he was the target of a knife attack by three unidentified assailants. After his arrest, several of his close associates were also subjected to repeated intimidation attempts by the police.
Several journalists are in prison in Cameroon, where press freedom has been eroded in recent years. Amadou Vamoulké, 71, the former head of the state-owned national radio and TV broadcaster CRTV, has been held for almost five years in Kondengui prison in Yaoundé awaiting trial. The journalist Emmanuel Mbombog Mbog Matip was arrested and arbitrarily detained in August 2020 accused of publishing fake news. He has announced he will start a hunger strike from tomorrow.
Cameroon is ranked 135th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by RSF.