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Is Cameroonian Journalist Ahmed Abba’s Imprisonment Because of Security, or Is It an Attack on the Press?

Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly used a photo of a man named Simon Ateba, a journalist who at one time was also arrested by Cameroonian authorities. Simon Ateba has since been released; Ahmed Abba remains in prison.

On 30 July 2015, Ahmed Abba, a Hausa-language correspondent at Radio France International (RFI) in Maroua, northern Cameroon, was arrested by the security forces in connection with inquiries into the activities of militant group Boko Haram.

Two years later, he was convicted of “non-denunciation of terrorism” and “laundering of the proceeds of terrorist acts” and was sentenced by a military court to 10 years in prison.

His supporters say the charges are unsubstantiated, and his Abba's case has led many to believe that this is an excuse for the Cameroonian government to attack press freedom. Abba had been tasked by RFI to cover the region and specifically the activities Boko Haram at the border of Cameroon and Nigeria.

Cameroon President Paul Biya has repeatedly stated that his country is “at war with Boko Haram.” Under the guise of this policy, Biya's government has cracked down on civil liberties and targeted journalists reporting on the situation. Three other journalists – Baba Wame, Rodrigue Tongue, and Félix Cyriaque Ebolé Bola – have also been prosecuted by a military tribunal for failing to disclose information and sources to the government.

Makaïla Nguebla, a Chadian blogger with experience of the abuses of authoritarian African regimes against human rights activists — having been forced into exile from Chad and then expelled from Senegal and Guinea — presented the facts after Abba was convicted in April 2017:

Ahmed Abba avait été arrêté le 30 juillet 2015 en lien avec sa couverture des attaques du groupe terroriste Boko Haram. Il avait passé sept mois détenu au secret durant lesquels il avait subi des sévices, avant d’être finalement présenté à un juge le 29 février 2016. Depuis, les demandes de libération sous caution de ses avocats ont été systématiquement ignorées lors des 17 audiences de son procès. Le journaliste devra donc purger une peine de 10 ans de prison. Ce dernier a déjà passé 20 mois en détention dans l’attente de ce verdict inique. Les avocats du journaliste ont immédiatement annoncé leur intention de faire appel.

Ahmed Abba was arrested on 30 July 2015 in connection with his coverage of the attacks of the terrorist group Boko Haram. He spent six months being held in secret, during which he was physically abused, before finally being brought before a judge on 29 February 2016. Since then, requests for bail have been systematically ignored during the 17 sessions of his trial. The journalist will therefore have to serve a 10-year prison service. He has already spent 20 months in custody while awaiting this iniquitous verdict. The journalist's lawyers immediately announced their intention to appeal.

The Cameroonian national press and international press roundly condemned the weakness of the evidence presented against Abba. For journalist Masbé Ndengar:

L’issue de ce procès indigne autant les défenseurs des droits humains que les défenseurs de la liberté d’expression de la presse. Il ressort qu’il n’existe pas de preuve irréfutable pouvant condamner le journaliste. L’accusation s’est basée sur un supposé téléphone qui aurait appartenu à un terroriste ou une de ses victimes et dont les données numériques seraient sauvegardées dans un cybercafé détenu par Ahmed Abba. On voit là une volonté manifeste de nuire. Mais pourquoi s’en prendre vertement à celui qui n’a que son micro pour accomplir sa tâche ? visiblement les autorités camerounaises se trompent de véritables cibles. Pendant qu’elles engagent une lutte acharnée contre la liberté d’expression et de la presse, les vrais collabos courent en toutes libertés dans les rues de Yaoundé, de Douala, de Gamdéré, de Maroua, etc.

Si condamner Ahmed Abba doit être vu comme un acte dissuasif alors c’est raté parce que cela n’a pas empêché les terroristes, en occurrence Boko Haram de continuer à sévir sévèrement ni aux petits esprits de leur apporter leur soutien.

The outcome of this trial has human rights defenders up in arms as much as it has the press freedom defenders up in arms. It turns out that no irrefutable evidence to convict the journalist exists. The accusation is based on an alleged telephone which is said to have belonged to a terrorist or one of his victims, and whose digital data is supposed to have been kept safe in a cybercafe run by Ahmed Abba. We see here a flagrant intent to harm. But what has a man who has only his microphone to carry out his work done to earn it? The Cameroonian authorities are visibly off-target. While they are engaged in a relentless struggle against press freedom, the real collaborators remain scot free in the streets of Yaoundé, Douala, Gamdéré, Maroua and so on.

If convicting Ahmed Abba is to be seen as an act of deterrence, it has failed, because it has prevented neither the terrorists, in this case Boko Haram, from continuing their depredations, nor the weak-minded from offering them their support.

Meanwhile, Olivier Tchouaffe denounced the methods of President Paul Biya, who has led Cameroon for the past 42 years — from 1975 to 1982 as prime minister and as pPresident since — beating all worldwide records for hanging on to power:

Par ailleurs, ces prisonniers, pour la plupart, sont aussi embastillés, non pas dans des prisons conventionnelles mais dans des institutions militarisées ou de sécurité dite maximale, ce que le président du CL2P, Joël Didier Engo, a appelé des “mouroirs concentrationnaires”.

Le cas d'Ahmed Abba montre, encore une fois, un gouvernement qui abuse de la notion de raison d'État afin d'inféoder la justice et de la placer sous ses ordres.

Inconstestablement, les methodes de destrution rapide et lâche du régime de Paul Biya ne méritent rien de moins qu'une vigilance implacable…Les enjeux en présence dans la crise actuelle nous permettent donc d'apercevoir l'étendue de la machine à déformation des faits, puis celle de l'orchestration des mensonges, eux-mêmes déclinés en véritables catégories de savoirs-pouvoirs intégrés à la lutte de pérennisation d'une dictature, pour laquelle uniquement certaines vérités – ses vérités – sont autorisées, pendant que toutes les autres doivent systématiquement être réprimées. Ces vérités voulues officielles sont naturellement enrôlées pour le maintien de l'ordre établi et dominant de Paul Biya depuis bientôt quarante ans, et n'ont en réalité jamais été une affaire de Justice

In any case, these prisoners are flung, for the most part, not into conventional jails, but into military or so-called maximum security facilities, institutions which Joël Didier Engo, the President of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CL2P) in Cameroon, has called “death camps”.

Ahmed Abba's case shows yet again a government which is misusing the concept of “reasons of state” to suborn justice and subject it to the government's own dictates.

No one can deny that Paul Biya's regime's methods of rapid and gutless obliteration call for nothing but implacable vigilance. The very stakes set by the present crisis afford us a glimpse of the extent of a machine for twisting facts – or, rather, for orchestrating lies – lies, that is, sinking to the level of their true category,  of ‘how-to’ tips in the fight to foster a perennial dictatorship, for which only certain truths – its truths – are authorized, while all others must systematically be repressed.  Naturally, these so-called official truths are pressed into service for the maintenance of Paul Biya's order of dominance, established for nearly 40 years now, and have never in reality had anything to do with Justice.

In an interview broadcast by RFI, Denis Nkwebo, president of the National Union of Journalists of Cameroon, an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists, was quoted as saying:

C'est une punition contre la presse, c'est une volonté de criminaliser le métier de journaliste au Cameroun. Tout ce qu'on reproche à Ahmed Abba, c'est d'avoir été en situation professionnelle. A aucun moment dans ce procès, on ne nous a donné la preuve qu'il a été impliqué dans quelque chose de grave. La presse était jusqu'ici sous le coup d'une oppression silencieuse, et la condamnation d'Ahmed Abba est un message fort à l'endroit des journalistes qui osent encore exercer ce métier dans un pays où l'on nous affirme tous les jours que l'on est en démocratie.

This is an attack on the press. It's as if they want to criminalize journalism as an occupation in Cameroon. All they're accusing Ahmed Abba of is being a professional. At no point in this trial have we been given evidence that he was implicated in anything serious. The press has laboured up to now under a silent oppression, and Ahmed Abba's conviction is a strong message aimed at journalists who dare to carry on this occupation in a country which we are assured daily is democratic.

In a July 2016 interview with Reporters Without Borders before Abba's conviction and sentencing, his lawyer Charles Tchoungang said judges had yet to examine his client's case:

It must be said that his case is special. Firstly, for the first three months after his arrest, no one knew where he was or no one wanted to say. The authorities eventually admitted they were holding him secretly. And even then, the matter had to be raised with the president’s office. He had been transferred to the intelligence services in Yaoundé, he had been questioned without a lawyer being present, and he had been transferred directly to a military court without a proper judicial investigation. During this period, he was also clearly subjected to physical and psychological mistreatment. At the next hearing, we will ask for a special session to be scheduled so that the substance of the case can finally be considered.

In the same interview, Tchoungang told them he was kidnapped and drugged by persons unknown on the day one of the hearings. The lawyer went on to explain his firm conviction that different treatment was being meted out to his client in comparison with other journalists indicted on similar charges, such as Baba Wame, Rodrigue Ndeutchoua Tongue and Félix Cyriaque Ebolé Bola:

I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was initially arrested in the course of a routine check, but when the police learned that he was RFI’s correspondent, he was handed over to the political police in Yaoundé and was accused of passing information to the country’s enemies. I have checked all of his reporting and it is beyond reproach. In my view, the only aggravating circumstance is the fact that he works for a leading French radio station. As you know, there is a big anti-French current of opinion in Cameroon and some officials may have wanted to pull off a stunt.

What we now want is for Ahmed Abba to be freed, to be reunited with his family and, very importantly, to be able to return to work. I am convinced that I am defending an innocent man.

Abba's work with a France-based radio station is allegedly playing a role in his harsh sentencing. Anti-French sentiment in Cameroon is not new. This sentiment originates in what is perceived as unfair bilateral trade agreements that favors France in the mining industry and has expanded because of the French origin of weapons seized from the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.

A hearing to appeal the conviction was scheduled for 17 August 2017, but without explanation, his case has been struck from the tribunal's agenda.

On its Facebook page, the Committee for the Liberation of Cameroonian Political Prisoners protested angrily:

Cameroun: Non à la prise en otage d'un journaliste dans un sordide chantage diplomatique exercé à la France sous couvert de la nécessaire lutte contre le terrorisme…

Il n’y a en effet que l’imagination fertile d’un tyran pour faire germer une telle manœuvre en détournant et instrumentalisant de la sorte la nécessaire et légitime lutte contre le terrorisme, dans le but non avoué d’exercer indirectement un ignoble chantage diplomatique sur sa puissance protectrice, La France.

Nous n’exigeons rien d’autre que la libération pure et simple du correspondant camerounais en langue haoussa de Radio France Internationale (RFI), Ahmed Abba.

Cameroon: No to the hostage taking of a journalist in a sordid diplomatic blackmail operation against France under cover of the necessary fight against terrorism!

All it really takes is a tyrant's fertile imagination to incubate a manoeuvre like this, for diverting and exploiting the necessary and legitimate fight against terrorism, with the unstated aim of carrying out an indirect and despicable act of diplomatic blackmail against his protecting power – France.

We demand nothing less than the release pure and simple of the Cameroonian Hausa-language correspondent of Radio France International (RFI), Ahmed Abba.

A Support Ahmed Abba Committee has been created, encompassing many personalities from the media and music worlds, as well as non-governmental organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, Africtivistes (a collective of African cyber-activists for democracy), the Committee to Protect Journalists, Journaliste en danger (Journalist in danger), and the International Federation of Journalists.

In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Sans Frontières, Cameroon occupies 126th place out of 180 countries considered.

You can sign the petition here.

Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly used a photo of a man named Simon Ateba, a journalist who at one time was also arrested by Cameroonian authorities. Simon Ateba has since been released; Ahmed Abba remains in prison.

2 comments

  • It’s been many times my picture is used to illustrate articles on Ahmed Abba. While I was arrested in Cameroon and accused of being a Boko Haram spy by the Cameroonian authorities while doing an article on Nigerian refugees there, I was set free without charges after outrage and protests in Cameroon and Nigeria. It was a difficult times being detained in inhuman conditions. I suffered a lot from trauma after I was released and quickly flew out of the country. I now live in Washington DC and I am the publisher of simonatebanews.com. My name is Simon Ateba, an investigative journalist and an online publisher, the type the government of President Paul Biya does not want with his reckless closure of the Internet at the slight protest. I am not Ahmed Abba. I sympathise with him and know that he’s innocent as journalism is not espionage. Many times, many people use my picture and the American government now thinks that I am the person who was convicted on terrorism and spying charges in Cameroon. This has affected me a lot and this latest article will make me give further explanation to the government. I would like my picture to be taken down and an article written retracting it. Thank you

  • Corrected:
    My name is Simon Ateba, not Ahmed Abba. Many times, my picture has been used to illustrate articles on Ahmed Abba on the Internet and newspapers.

    While I was arrested in Cameroon and accused of being a Boko Haram spy by the Cameroonian authorities while doing an investigative report on Nigerian refugees there, I was set free without charges after outrage and protests in Cameroon and Nigeria.

    It was a difficult being detained in inhuman conditions. I suffered a lot from trauma after I was released and quickly flew out of the country.

    I now live in Washington DC and I am the publisher of simonatebanews.com.

    My name is Simon Ateba, an investigative journalist and an online publisher, the type the government of President Paul Biya does not want with his reckless closure of the Internet at the slight protest.

    I am not Ahmed Abba. I sympathise with him and know that he’s innocent as journalism is not espionage.

    Many times, many people used my picture and the American government now thinks that I am the person who was convicted on terrorism and spying charges in Cameroon.

    This has affected me a lot and this latest article will make me give further explanation to the government.

    I would like my picture to be taken down and an article written retracting it, explaining clearly that I am not the person. Many people have been contacted me, many have emailed the articles to their friends and contacts. Thank you

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