By Tazoacha Asonganyi in Yaounde.
When trouble broke out in the past between News Media/Journalists and the National Communication Council (NCC), I wrote two articles. One was titled “Joseph Befe Ateba: Journalist on the Other Side” in which I stated as follows: “The mission of outfits like the government-controlled NCC is to check the power of the press, and by implication, society’s freedoms, to cede space for government power…Some apologists may say that there are other journalists in NCC other than its Chairman. Of course, they are there, but most seem to at least cover-up by indulging in sophistry and casuistry. Whatever the case, it is Befe Ateba that is in the dock. After all, it is usually said that the buck can be passed on but it must end somewhere. For the NCC, the buck ends with Joseph Befe Ateba…”
In a second article titled “Mocking The Rule Of Law By Lynching Figuratively And In Essence” I stated as follows: “The rule of law abhors interferences like the ‘fifteen-days-renewable’ of administrators, suspension of journalists and news outlets by the NCC, and many other niches carved out by government for appointed officials to wield discretionary power – a subversion of judicial authority by executive power! Indeed, such government appointees virtually always work actively or passively to diminish the rule of law….Those with thin skins should not leave the impression in the public mind that the press in Cameroon fought a gallant fight against censorship in the 1990s and censorship ended up having the last laugh….”
Things have since changed – not for the better! Following his unfortunate demise, Joseph Befe Ateba’s role is being played by … a seasoned journalist! And so the buck now ends at the feet of the new strongman. That man that stands accused following the recent highhandedness of the NCC is called Peter Essoka.
Since the ‘60s, we have been grappling with governance based on constitutionalism that is said to separate state power into three arms: the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature. If this form were to be respected, laws would be made by the legislative arm, interpretation of laws and adjudication would be the role of the judiciary, and execution of laws would be the role of the executive arm. Our ideological differences may separate us on substantive issues of governance, but at least, there did not have to be any quarrel on procedural issues related to this set up.
Unfortunately, in Cameroon, the executive has always exercised overbearing power, dabbling in issues supposed to be reserved for the judiciary, and giving the right of interpretation of laws and adjudication to administrative officials (DOs, SDOs, Governors) and to outfits like the NCC. And so, since independence, we have lived in an environment made oppressive by blind, incompetent, self-serving elite constituted into a cabal that is stuck with old, long discarded paradigms, oiled by impunity and an obsession for corruption and theft of the common wealth.
These people pretend to be oblivious of the reasons for which Africa and Africans are the laughingstock of the world. They pretend not to know that the oppressive environment they create clogs our minds, and does not leave room for our indulging in the work and life of the mind that give birth to the glittering material culture that is all around us in this fast evolving 21st century. They pretend not to know that if the African mind has to function at the level of the minds of those who create these glittering things that we indulge in to facilitate our lives on earth, our oppressive environment has to be lifted and replaced with the type of environment that those other minds live in. They pretend not to know that those freedoms we all sing about are the pillars of this environment in which the sovereign individual or the citizen as ‘the legal subject,’ is at the centre of law and judicial due process. The human genome project has since given its verdict: overall differences in performance of human communities are not due to nature (genes) but to nurture (environment). We should always remember what Kennedy said to the American people: our goal is not peace at the expense of freedom but both peace and freedom. Whatever we do, we should always remember that freedom is the key to unlocking the creative spirit of society in all domains. Our man who is promising emergence in 2035, and hurrying another obnoxious, so-called “anti-terrorism” bill to the national assembly to make our environment even more oppressive, should take note of this.
It is interesting that these people of the NCC use what they call “dispassionate, fair, accurate and balanced” reporting to punish journalists. A prominent politician in Nigeria once declared that “if the next elections are rigged Nigeria will be made ungovernable.” Nigerian journalists were divided into two camps (and more!) with one saying that the politician was sounding a warning against vote-rigging, while the other was saying that the politician was threatening to cause confusion in the country if he didn’t win. The mind of an actor like the politician in question is a domain opaque to examination and difficult to assess. How one can measure “dispassionate, fair, accurate and balanced” here is difficult to say in real life, although they will tell you they are taught in journalism school how to do so.
This is just a simple example of the type of information and news in society that must be dealt with by journalists. It is also to say that truthful or falsehood, whether an idea, principle, value or view is valid or not, depends on changing times and changing peoples of varied orientation, minds and motives. Journalists are usually condemned to deal most of the time with a part, not the totality of an experience. They usually are forced to deal with the way things appear, not the way they are or can become. What each journalist usually ends up with depends on the entreaties of their reason and passion, of logic and experience, of their scale of values, of their intelligence. This is why they rarely ever reach definitive judgment. In the heat of the robust debate that journalism entails, journalists usually enjoy even a democratic right of error.
A person like Mendo Ze was general manager of CRTV from 1988 to 2005. Nine years after his leaving CRTV, he was recently arrested as a suspect of malpractices during his tenure in CRTV! After all those years, in spite of the audit report that had since made him a suspect! What would Peter Essoka and his NCC court say would be “dispassionate, fair, accurate and balanced” reporting about this former CRTV big-man while the executive labored with prosecuting him at its whim? Perhaps journalists should look the other way until the executive decides to act when they like, as if they are running a private estate! A truth is unchanged by the fact that it is not known or that it is known only by a few.
We also hear that our high priests of the NCC say journalists are guilty of “insulting” an official of the presidency! It seems that they do not also count the misfortunes of Cameroon in Kondengui prison as we all do. If they did, they would know that those high places are home to a cabal with insatiable appetite, which has replaced the general interest with self-interest, and needs to be permanently watched by the press. When we battled for the creation of “independent” structures to regulate the activities of society, we were not bargaining for kangaroo courts like the NCC. We understood “independent” to mean what it has always meant: non-attachment to any branch of government or alignment to any political interest; non-promotion of the narrow interests of any political party, or sectional group. Who doubts who is paying the piper?
With this sorry performance of the NCC, Paul Biya can now rub his hands in glee and ask us: you say I abuse the overwhelming power I have because I am a bad leader. See what they are doing with the little fraction of my power I gave to them.
And what would be our response, apart from seeking the answer to Geoffrey Chaucer’s question in General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales: if gold rust, what then will iron do?
Well, let me borrow the signature of one of my friends to put my own question: Peter Essoka, are we together? If we are, then answer Chaucer!