- Police have surrounded the offices in Douala of the privately-owned station, 'Freedom FM', and closed it on the orders of Communications Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo, who said it did not have permission to broadcast.
Minister Ndongo said in a statement that the closure of 'Freedom FM' had, "in accordance with the rules, put an end to a flagrant and obvious example of illegal broadcasting." He claimed the station had never applied for a licence.
However, the station's agent, Pius Njawé, who is head of the large and experienced 'Le Messager' media group, told the French media watchdogs Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) that he indeed had applied for such a licence. "It's a lie. We completed all the formalities. The Ministry even sent technicians to inspect our equipment," Mr Njawé said.
The new radio station was closed by the government on 23 May one day before it was due to go on the air. RSF today denounced this move as a "serious attack on press freedom" by the Cameroonian government. "This uncalled-for measure is also a severe blow to news diversity in Cameroon," said RSF Secretary-General Robert Ménard in a letter to the Minister.
- The government knew perfectly well how important the station was since most Cameroonians listen to radio stations to find out what's going on, Mr Ménard added. "The closure was just an attempt to stop people getting a balanced view of President Paul Biya's record in the run-up to next year's presidential elections."
The press freedom group had already expressed concern at the government's closure on 19 February of two privately-owned TV stations, RTA and Canal 2. Independent broadcasting media are officially allowed but are forced to operate illegally since the authorities do not respond to licence requests. RSF called on the government to "legalise all the broadcast media and especially allow Freedom FM to operate."
According to RSF's last annual report on press freedom in Cameroon, covering 2002, the situation seemed to be improving. "The days are over when journalists were imprisoned on the least pretext but the authorities use other means to keep some control over the news." Cameroonian courts increasingly imposed fines instead of prison sentences on journalists breaking the press laws.
About a dozen privately-owned radio stations and several privately-owned TV stations now compete with the state-owned broadcasters. "However, two years after broadcasting was opened to the private sector, these news media were still operating illegally as the authorities had not yet acted on their requests for accreditation," the RSF report noted.
Mr Njawé of the 'Le Messager' press group on several occasions has experienced government intimidation and harassment, related to his position in the independent media landscape of Cameroon. When Mr Njawé arrived at Douala airport on 16 June 2002 at the end of a six-month stay in Britain, the frontier police officer at the immigration counter took his passport, ID card and driver's license and gave them to the airport police superintendent, who refused to return them.
The documents were finally returned to him three days later by the special superintendent for general intelligence. Mr Njawé thought the authorities did this in order "to restrict my movements and keep a better eye on me" in the run-up to the elections.
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