Is Cameroonian Journalist Ahmed Abba’s Imprisonment Because of Security, or Is It an Attack on the Press?

Is Cameroonian Journalist Ahmed Abba’s Imprisonment Because of Security, or Is It an Attack on the Press?

On 30 July 2015, Ahmed Abba, a Hausa-language correspondent at Radio France International (RFI) in Maroua, northern Cameroon, was arrested by the security forces in connection with inquiries into the activities of militant group Boko Haram.

Two years later, he was convicted of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts” and was sentenced by a military court to 10 years in prison.

His supporters say the charges are unsubstantiated, and his Abba’s case has led many to believe that this is an excuse for the Cameroonian government to attack press freedom. Abba had been tasked by RFI to cover the region and specifically the activities Boko Haram at the border of Cameroon and Nigeria.

Cameroon President Paul Biya has repeatedly stated that his country is “at war with Boko Haram.” Under the guise of this policy, Biya’s government has cracked down on civil liberties and targeted journalists reporting on the situation. Three other journalists – Baba Wame, Rodrigue Tongue, and Félix Cyriaque Ebolé Bola – have also been prosecuted by a military tribunal for failing to disclose information and sources to the government.

Makaïla Nguebla, a Chadian blogger with experience of the abuses of authoritarian African regimes against human rights activists — having been forced into exile from Chad and then expelled from Senegal and Guinea — presented the facts after Abba was convicted in April 2017:

Ahmed Abba was arrested on 30 July 2015 in connection with his coverage of the attacks of the terrorist group Boko Haram. He spent six months being held in secret, during which he was physically abused, before finally being brought before a judge on 29 February 2016. Since then, requests for bail have been systematically ignored during the 17 sessions of his trial. The journalist will therefore have to serve a 10-year prison service. He has already spent 20 months in custody while awaiting this iniquitous verdict. The journalist’s lawyers immediately announced their intention to appeal.

 

The Cameroonian national press and international press roundly condemned the weakness of the evidence presented against Abba. For journalist Masbé Ndengar

The outcome of this trial has human rights defenders up in arms as much as it has the press freedom defenders up in arms. It turns out that no irrefutable evidence to convict the journalist exists. The accusation is based on an alleged telephone which is said to have belonged to a terrorist or one of his victims, and whose digital data is supposed to have been kept safe in a cybercafe run by Ahmed Abba. We see here a flagrant intent to harm. But what has a man who has only his microphone to carry out his work done to earn it? The Cameroonian authorities are visibly off-target. While they are engaged in a relentless struggle against press freedom, the real collaborators remain scot free in the streets of Yaoundé, Douala, Gamdéré, Maroua and so on.

If convicting Ahmed Abba is to be seen as an act of deterrence, it has failed, because it has prevented neither the terrorists, in this case Boko Haram, from continuing their depredations, nor the weak-minded from offering them their support.

Meanwhile, Olivier Tchouaffe denounced the methods of President Paul Biya, who has led Cameroon for the past 42 years — from 1975 to 1982 as prime minister and as president since — beating all worldwide records for hanging on to power:

In any case, these prisoners are flung, for the most part, not into conventional jails, but into military or so-called maximum security facilities, institutions which Joël Didier Engo, the President of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CL2P) in Cameroon, has called “death camps”.

Ahmed Abba’s case shows yet again a government which is misusing the concept of “reasons of state” to suborn justice and subject it to the government’s own dictates.

No one can deny that Paul Biya’s regime’s methods of rapid and gutless obliteration call for nothing but implacable vigilance. The very stakes set by the present crisis afford us a glimpse of the extent of a machine for twisting facts – or, rather, for orchestrating lies – lies, that is, sinking to the level of their true category,  of ‘how-to’ tips in the fight to foster a perennial dictatorship, for which only certain truths – its truths – are authorized, while all others must systematically be repressed.  Naturally, these so-called official truths are pressed into service for the maintenance of Paul Biya’s order of dominance, established for nearly 40 years now, and have never in reality had anything to do with Justice.

In an interview broadcast by RFI, Denis Nkwebo, president of the National Union of Journalists of Cameroon, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists, was quoted as saying:

This is an attack on the press. It’s as if they want to criminalize journalism as an occupation in Cameroon. All they’re accusing Ahmed Abba of is being a professional. At no point in this trial have we been given evidence that he was implicated in anything serious. The press has laboured up to now under a silent oppression, and Ahmed Abba’s conviction is a strong message aimed at journalists who dare to carry on this occupation in a country which we are assured daily is democratic.

 

In a July 2016 interview with Reporters Without Borders before Abba’s conviction and sentencing, his lawyer Charles Tchoungang said judges had yet to examine his client’s case:

It must be said that his case is special. Firstly, for the first three months after his arrest, no one knew where he was or no one wanted to say. The authorities eventually admitted they were holding him secretly. And even then, the matter had to be raised with the president’s office. He had been transferred to the intelligence services in Yaoundé, he had been questioned without a lawyer being present, and he had been transferred directly to a military court without a proper judicial investigation. During this period, he was also clearly subjected to physical and psychological mistreatment. At the next hearing, we will ask for a special session to be scheduled so that the substance of the case can finally be considered.

In the same interview, Tchoungang told them he was kidnapped and drugged by persons unknown on the day one of the hearings. The lawyer went on to explain his firm conviction that different treatment was being meted out to his client in comparison with other journalists indicted on similar charges, such as Baba Wame, Rodrigue Ndeutchoua Tongue and Félix Cyriaque Ebolé Bola:

I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was initially arrested in the course of a routine check, but when the police learned that he was RFI’s correspondent, he was handed over to the political police in Yaoundé and was accused of passing information to the country’s enemies. I have checked all of his reporting and it is beyond reproach. In my view, the only aggravating circumstance is the fact that he works for a leading French radio station. As you know, there is a big anti-French current of opinion in Cameroon and some officials may have wanted to pull off a stunt.

What we now want is for Ahmed Abba to be freed, to be reunited with his family and, very importantly, to be able to return to work. I am convinced that I am defending an innocent man.

Abba’s work with a France-based radio station is allegedly playing a role in his harsh sentencing. Anti-French sentiment in Cameroon is not new. This sentiment originates in what is perceived as unfair bilateral trade agreements that favors France in the mining industry and has expanded because of the French origin of weapons seized from the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.

A hearing to appeal the conviction was scheduled for 17 August 2017, but without explanation, his case has been struck from the tribunal’s agenda.

On its Facebook page, the Committee for the Liberation of Cameroonian Political Prisoners protested angrily:

Cameroon: No to the hostage taking of a journalist in a sordid diplomatic blackmail operation against France under cover of the necessary fight against terrorism!

All it really takes is a tyrant’s fertile imagination to incubate a manoeuvre like this, for diverting and exploiting the necessary and legitimate fight against terrorism, with the unstated aim of carrying out an indirect and despicable act of diplomatic blackmail against his protecting power – France.

We demand nothing less than the release pure and simple of the Cameroonian Hausa-language correspondent of Radio France International (RFI), Ahmed Abba.

A Support Ahmed Abba Committee has been created, encompassing many personalities from the media and music worlds, as well as non-governmental organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, Africtivistes (a collective of African cyber-activists for democracy), the Committee to Protect Journalists, Journaliste en danger (Journalist in danger), and the International Federation of Journalists.

In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Sans Frontières, Cameroon occupies 126th place out of 180 countries considered.

You can sign the petition here.

This article originally appeared on www.globalvoices.org.

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