Yaounde — Journalists in Cameroon say the government's indefinite shutdown of a radio station and suspension of four reporters is a sign of a growing crackdown on the country's news media. The government says it is trying to stop the spread of hate speech, while journalists say officials want to retaliate against criticism of President Paul Biya.
Bruno Bidjang, host of the popular program on Vision 4 TV called "Club d'Elite" has said on his program that he will continue exercising his profession to the best of his ability without fear.
However, Cameroon's National Communication Council, an organ created by the government to regulate the media, imposed a one-month suspension on Bidjang for hosting guests who the government says used hateful language on his program.
The NCC said Bidjang was warned several times, but he continued inviting such guests on the program.
The council this week also imposed suspensions on a radio station and three other media practitioners for broadcasting offensive or hateful content.
NCC President Joe Chebongkeng Kalabubse said these journalists and media outlets propagated hate speech and xenophobic language.
"We have noticed that we can nip the problem in the bud by encouraging journalists to be more professional," Kalabubse said. "We want to encourage journalists to be as professional as possible. We will not hesitate to sanction them if they falter."
Kalabubse said he has informed Cameroon's minister of territorial administration, Paul Atanga Nji, to make sure that journalists who do not respect the order are punished, and media organizations that continue to broadcast are permanently closed.
Nji said he has instructed police and local government officials to force the journalists to respect the sanctions.
"The media men should know that they have the moral obligation to comply by respecting these decisions taken for the common good," Nji said. "Because if we are in a state of law and we don't respect the laws of the republic, then we are walking towards a jungle, and Cameroon is not a jungle. We should use liberty of expression to construct and not to destroy. So, I want to tell the media men that they have the obligation to comply. If they don't comply, we will accompany them to comply by force."
But journalists in Cameroon say they are victims of increasing oppression. They say the government clamps down on media that hold contrary opinions to state actions.
The Cameroon Journalists Trade Union said the NCC was set up by Biya to defend his interests and crack down on journalists who oppose his rule.
The trade union said senior state functionaries and military officials who are accused of corrupt practices ask the NCC to suspend reporters -- a charge the NCC denies.
The government said hate speech propagated through the media has become rampant since the disputed 2018 presidential election.
In addition, some French-speaking host communities accuse English speakers displaced by the separatist conflict in the west of being separatist fighters or sympathizers.
Cameroon's minister of territorial administration said local media that do not stop guests in debate programs from asking communities to rise against one another will be punished. Journalists who anchor such programs will also be punished, the government said, though it has not outlined any punishment.
Cameroon has more than 600 newspapers, about 200 radio stations and 60 TV networks, yet producing independent and critical reporting is still challenging, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In its 2023 World Press Freedom Index, the organization said Cameroon is one of Africa's most dangerous countries for journalists, since they operate in a hostile and precarious environment.