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Cameroonians Aren't Happy With Le Monde's Coverage of Their President's Health

Capture d'écran du couple Biya revenant à Yaoundé

Screenshot of the Biya couple returning to Yaoundé

The frequent trips made by Paul Biya, president of Cameroon since 1982, and his wife to Europe have always been cause for question among Cameroonians and observers of the country's politics. But the presidential couple's most recent trip in 2015 has drawn particular attention thanks to French newspaper Le Monde, which relied on anonymous sources to report that the trip was health-related. 

Cameroonians have criticized the paper's coverage as an invasion of privacy, and even accused Le Monde of participating in a plot orchestrated by former colonial power France to destabilise the country. 

It all started on 13 March when Le Monde Afrique, the African edition of Le Monde, published an article initially titled “Le couple présidentiel hors du pays et en mauvaise santé” (The presidential couple out of the country and in poor health). In the first version of the article, which was shared widely on social media, notably by prominent Cameroonian activist Bergeline Domou, the editors of Le Monde Afrique declared:

Depuis le 2 mars, le chef de l’Etat camerounais « effectue une visite privée en Europe », indique un communiqué du palais d’Etoudi, le siège de la présidence, sans préciser la destination. Mais de sources concordantes, Paul Biya séjourne actuellement dans un centre hospitalier du canton de Genève, où il suit un traitement pour des soucis cardiaques et un cancer de la prostate, ajoutent les mêmes sources. Âgé de 82 ans – dont 33 passés au pouvoir – « l’homme lion », comme on le surnomme au Cameroun, hésiterait à subir une opération chirurgicale envisagée par les médecins.

Une source bien introduite dans les organisations de la diaspora camerounaise affirme que les médecins et autres personnels soignants camerounais ou d’origine camerounaise travaillant aux HUG (Hôpitaux universitaires de Genève, structure publique mais de grande qualité où sont souvent hospitalisés des chefs d’Etat africains) ont été récemment invités à prendre leurs congés. “

A press release from the presidential palace indicated that since 2 March, the Cameroonian head of state “is on a personal trip to Europe”, without specifying the exact destination. But several sources indicate that Paul Biya is currently staying in a medical facility in Geneva where, the same sources add, he is undergoing treatment for cardiac issues and prostate cancer. At 82 years of age — 33 of which were spent in power — the “Lion Man” (as he is known in Cameroon) is said to be hesitating about undergoing the surgical intervention suggested by doctors. 

A well-connected source within the Cameroonian diaspora has confirmed that doctors and other healthcare professionals from Cameroon or of Cameroonian origin who work at HUG (the University Hospital of Geneva, a public but well-regarded hospital where African heads of state are often hospitalised) were recently encouraged to take their holidays. 

In the version of the article currently available online, this information has been removed. The headline is also different. “Le couple présidentiel hors du pays et en mauvaise santé” (The presidential couple out of the country and in poor health) was changed to “Le couple présidentiel s'exile pour raisons médicales” (The presidential couple go abroad for health reasons), and then to “Le couple présidentiel est à Genève et s'occupe de sa santé” (The presidential couple is in Geneva and focused on their health), as can be seen in screenshots on the blog of Cameroonian Allain Jules:

Screenshots by Cameroonian blogger Allain Jules that show the evolution of headlines from Le Monde regarding the presidential couple in Cameroon.

Screenshots by Cameroonian blogger Allain Jules that show the evolution of headlines from Le Monde regarding the presidential couple in Cameroon.

The article prompted various reactions from Cameroonian readership. First was the question of medical confidentiality. For Allain Jules, interviewed by the news site Cameroon-Info.Net, everyone, including people in the public eye, has the right to a private life and to medical confidentiality:

Même s'il y a des vérités, c'est de l'ordre du privé. Parce que, chaque personne est libre de garder un secret médical. Encore plus, les médecins. Le secret médical est un des fondements de la médecine libérale dont la violation est réprimée par le code de santé publique et le code pénal.

Even if it is true, it is private. Because everyone is entitled to medical confidentiality. Doctors even more so. Medical confidentiality is one of the foundations of the medical profession, the violation of which is outlawed by the public health code and the penal code. 

This is a view shared by the Cameroonian government. On a chat show on Cameroonian television, the inspector general of the Ministry of Communication declared:

le droit aussi pour le chef de l’Etat camerounais au respect de sa vie privée, nonobstant son statut de personnalité publique.

L’article 9 du Code civil français prescrit que «chacun a droit au respect de sa vie privée», a-t-il rappelé. Le Pr. Albert Mbida a également évoqué un arrêt rendu par la Cour de cassation en 1998 qui abonde dans le même sens.

The right to a private life for the Cameroonian head of state as well, even he is in the public eye.

He pointed out that article 9 of the French Civil Code decrees that “everyone has the right to respect for his or her private life”. Professor Albert Mbida also referred to a judgement delivered by the Supreme Court in 1998 which came to the same conclusion. 

To Paris-based Cameroonian analyst Abdelaziz Moundé, the Le Monde article issue poses a fundamental question:

La fonction présidentielle sacrifiera t-elle à l'impératif d'une mutation moderne ? : déclarer ses biens suivant la Constitution et publier son bulletin de santé, gage de responsabilité et de transparence.

La question du secret dans la gestion des affaires de l'État n'a plus la même nature qu'au mitan des années 60. La vie politique evolue avec les exigences de son temps.

Will the institution of the president respond to the pressing need for a modern transformation?: to declare his or her assets in accordance with the Constitution and publish his or her medical report, showing responsibility and transparency. 

The question of privacy when it comes to managing national affairs is not the same as in the mid-1960s anymore. Political life has changed in line with the times. 

More than the question of medical confidentiality, one point resurfaced repeatedly in Cameroonian reactions to the story: the idea that Le Monde Afrique was in fact the journalistic arm of a foreign effort to destabilise Cameroon. Citing an anonymous source, the site 237online wrote :

Cela trahit une sorte de complot du Quai d’Orsay, par presse interposée, contre le pouvoir de Yaoundé au moment où le pays de Paul Biya inspire confiance, à l’intérieur comme à l’extérieur, explique un fin analyste. On a envie de dire que c’est une histoire de fou, car Paul Biya subit régulièrement des check-up dont les résultats sont toujours satisfaisants. S’il y a des malades dans cette affaire, on pourrait dire que c’est plutôt le journal Le Monde qui mérite d’être conduit à l’hôpital et non le chef de l’État camerounais. Cette affaire pue la manipulation

This reveals a plot of some kind by the Quai d'Orsay (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), through the intermediary of the press, against those in power in Yaoundé at a point when Paul Biya's country inspires confidence inside and outside the country, explains a keen analyst. You want to say that it is nonsense, that Paul Biya has regular check-ups, the results of which are always satisfying. If there is anyone involved in this affair who is sick, it is Le Monde newspaper, which deserves to be sent to hospital and not the Cameroonian head of state. This whole affair stinks of interference.

The suggestion of alleged attempts by the former colonial power to destabilise Cameroon, whose 30 years of peace are threatened by Boko Haram extremists in the north of the country, is not new.   

On 28 February 2015, during a march organised in the capital Yaoundé in support of the northern population under attack by Boko Haram and of the soldiers fighting them, French ambassador to Cameroon Christine Robichon was booed by participants, who chanted “Non à la guerre, Non à Boko Haram, Non à la France !” (No to war. No to Boko Haram. No to France!)

Twitter user Ottou Sydney Olivier summed it up when he said:

Ce sentiment anti français qui continue de se propager partout au Cameroun… Le monde Afrique a pas aidé avec son article c'est sûr

— Ottou Sydney Olivier (@sydneyolivierO) March 16, 2015

This anti-French sentiment that continues to spread through Cameroon…The LeMonde Afrique article definitely didn't help

The presidential couple has not responded to the article from Le Monde Afrique yet.

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