Cameroon's private media defy ban on political debate

Cameroons private media defy ban on political debate
Cameroon's private media defy ban on political debate. Biya's party has won landslide majorities in every election since 1992. picture alliance/abaca/E. Blondet
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At Magic FM, a radio station in the capital, Yaounde, a signature tune announces the beginning of the political discussion program, Magic Attitude. Alima Mbarga, a communication officer with the Social Democratic Front, the main opposition party, is one of the studio guests talking calls from listeners.

He appreciates the radio station's decision to ignore a suspension on political debate and call-in programs, he told DW.

"The ban on political discussion is uncalled for because it's an election year," said Mbarga, referring to polls for Cameroon's senate, which will be held on March 25. "Enough space needs to be given to political parties to express themselves and people to express their opinions so that Cameroonians know what the parties and their candidates are developing."

Galaxy FM has another of the many private media outlets which have refused to stop broadcasting political discussion shows, with its popular French-language political program, Au Coeur de la Republique (At the Heart of the Republic) still on the air.

"We won't accept limiting freedom of speech when Cameroon wants to be fully democratic," said presenter Jean Jacques Ola Bebe, explaining the radio's decision.

"Freedom of speech is the pillar on which any true democracy should be constructed and electoral campaigns offer opportunities for politicians … to make their political programs known and present their balance sheet."

The media regulatory body, the National Communication Council (NCC) suspended broadcasts of political debates during the period March 10 -24, saying such discussions may cause conflict ahead of the election.

Broadcasters are still allowed to cover the election campaign and candidates activities, as long as their broadcasting is bound by equality, transparency, and fairness. The state-owned radio and TV broadcaster, CRTV, is adhering to the edict.

Press not free

Cameroon has a flourishing media landscape, with more than 500 newspapers and 100 radio and television stations. Despite the numerous outlets, Cameroon ranks 130 out of 180 countries in Reporter without Border's press freedom index. In the past, the NCC has banned newspapers and sanctioned, imposed exorbitant fines or arrested journalists and publishers for critical government coverage.

Read more: Cameroon: Detained journalist wins Committee to Protect Journalists award

NCC president Peter Essoka refuted allegations that the current suspension of political debate was a reaction to the media's growing criticism of the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, the ruling party of President Peter Biya. The president, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982, is Africa's longest reigning leader.

Jean Tobie Hond, the secretary general of the NCC, said all of those who refuse to follow the ban will be punished.

"If those media outlets do not see the need to stop, it is possible that the council will take measures spelled out in a 2012 presidential decree - notably the suspension of the defaulting media outlets."

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