Cameroon’s anti-terror law is being used by authorities to arrest and threaten local journalists, creating a climate fear among political reporters, according to an international media watchdog.
The legislation was enacted in 2014 to counter the Boko Haram armed group, blamed for a number of deadly attacks near Cameroon’s border with Nigeria over the past few years.
But in a report released on Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the anti-terror law was being used to silence media workers who report on Boko Haram, or on civil unrest in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions.
The report said that the crackdown on the press has left journalists too scared to cover politics.
With elections due to take place next year in Cameroon, journalists are steering away from sensitive issues in fear of reprisals, the CPJ said.
“Cameroon is clearly using anti-state legislation to silence criticism in the press,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ Africa Program Director and author of the report.
“When you equate journalism with terrorism, you create an environment where fewer journalists are willing to report on hard news for fear of reprisal,” Quintal added.
“Cameroon must amend its laws and stop subjecting journalists – who are civilians – to military trial.”
Rights groups have criticised the anti-terror law as overly broad and with the potential for abuse. It allows authorities to detain indefinitely those accused of “terrorism” and carries a maximum sentence of the death penalty.
Journalists have been repeatedly arrested under the act, including Radio France Internationale broadcaster and CPJ International Press Freedom Award honouree Ahmed Abba.
Abba was arrested in July 2015 and is currently serving a 10-year-sentence. He has routinely suffered beatings at the hands of prison guards, according to rights groups.
There were four journalists held under the act, until a presidential decree in August 2017, secured their release.
“All of them faced trial before a military court and, if convicted, they would have faced the death penalty,” said the CPJ report, titled “Journalists Not Terrorists: In Cameroon, anti-terror legislation is used to silence critics and suppress dissent”.
One editor told the CPJ that journalists are increasingly unsure of what they are able to report on, given they are fearful of contravening the anti-terror law. A newspaper proprietor told the CPJ that they have stopped reporting on issues that are “considered unfriendly to the regime – even if they are true”.
Thousands have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest against what they claim is the marginalisation of the country’s English-speaking minority population.