Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right.
Freedom of Expression: Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy. Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals. On several occasions the government used the law requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse, and many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty in obtaining approval to organize public gatherings. The government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political meetings.
During the year the divisional officer for Yaounde V banned public conferences that Hilaire Kamga, an elections expert, intended to organize at Felydac Hotel on February 15 and June 13 to address the issues of voter registration and peaceful transition. The divisional officer claimed the event was likely to disturb public order.
In September the senior divisional officer for Mfoundi, which encompasses the greater Yaounde area, pressured Hilton Hotel management to cancel a symposium entitled “Digital Rights and Elections in Cameroon,” organized by Paris-based Internet without Borders and Lagos-based Paradigm Initiative, days before it was to take place. Eventually, organizers secured a different hotel without any difficulty.
On June 15, authorities prevented the opposition party, the Cameroon Renaissance
Movement (CRM), from presenting a documentary on presidential candidate Maurice Kamto. The CRM booked Massago Hotel in Yaounde as the venue for the event. Hotel management asked CRM leaders to leave the premises a few hours before the beginning of the documentary showing, allegedly following intimidation and threats from authorities.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media was active and expressed a wide variety of views, although there were restrictions especially on editorial independence, in part due to stated security concerns related to the fight against Boko Haram and the crisis in the two Anglophone regions. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters. According to the 2018 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, authorities imposed a climate of fear and selfcensorship on media practitioners. Journalists faced significant hurdles, some of which led to exorbitant fines, and in some cases, jail terms.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least seven journalists were in prison. One was Thomas Awah Junior, who was arrested in Bamenda, Northwest Region, on January 2. He wrote for the monthly Aghem Messenger magazine and was sentenced to 11 years in prison on May 25 for acts of terrorism against the nation, secession, revolution, and propagation of disinformation through digital means. Awah Junior was incarcerated at Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde. Pictures of a severely emaciated Awah were widely circulated on social media in September. At the end of September, he was transported to a hospital in Yaounde to be treated for tuberculosis and pneumonia.
Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists for their reporting.
As in the previous year, authorities arrested journalists in connection with their reporting on the Anglophone crisis. According to reports by credible organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 20, police arrested Akumbom Elvis McCarthy, a news broadcaster for Abakwa FM Radio, a privately owned media outlet based in Bamenda, Northwest Region. McCarthy was allegedly taking pictures of police harassing taxi drivers. He reported in Pidgin English for the Media House, which also publishes news on its Facebook page. Judicial police detained the news broadcaster for three weeks before referring him to the military tribunal. The tribunal decided to remand McCarthy into custody for a renewable six-month period while police investigated claims that he reported separatist propaganda.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Based on a 1990 law on social communication, the Ministry of Communication requires editors to deposit two signed copies of their newspapers within two hours after publication. Journalists and media outlets practiced self-censorship, especially if the National
Communication Council (NCC) had suspended them previously. The NCC issued warnings and suspensions during the year. It declared that radio and television broadcasts of political debates during the period of March 10-24 were suspended, alleging that such discussions might cause conflict ahead of the March 25 senate election. It later clarified that this directive applied only to state-owned media outlets. Magic FM, a private media outlet, decided to broadcast its Magic Attitude political discussion program. Galaxy FM, another private media outlet, also continued broadcasting political discussion shows through its popular Frenchlanguage political program, Au Coeur de la Republique.
On March 15, the NCC issued eight separate decisions, warning or suspending journalists, media outlets, and programs for one to three months. Most were sanctioned for publishing statements deemed unfounded and offensive, which was considered a breach of professional ethics in mass communication. The media outlets included WB1 Radio, L’Orphelin, Horizon Plus, l’Essentiel du Cameroon, and Watch Dog Tribune. In all cases the alleged breaches occurred in 2017.
Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is further constrained by strict libel laws. These laws authorize the government, at its discretion and the request of the plaintiff, to criminalize a civil libel suit or to initiate a criminal libel suit in cases of alleged libel against the president or other high government officials. Such crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines. The libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant. The government contended libel laws were aimed at safeguarding citizens whose reputations could be permanently damaged by defamation. There were no reports the government or public figures used laws against libel or slander to restrict public discussion during the year.
According to Internet World Stats (IWS), there were 6,128,422 Internet users in December 2017, representing penetration rates of 24.8 percent. There are currently no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government, however, has repeatedly disrupted access to the internet.
The country experienced its first internet shutdown in January 2017, after Anglophone teachers, lawyers, and students went on strike over alleged social bias in favor of Francophones. The government issued a countrywide internet shutdown, which lasted 93 days. Educational, financial, and health-care institutions as well as businesses that relied on internet access were stunted. International bodies applied pressure to the government to restore internet access. Despite internet access being restored in April 2017, there were continuing reports of network instability.
In October 2017 the government effected a second internet blockade, targeting social media and apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook. This continued to affect the country economically, and many citizens were forced to travel back and forth to regions with internet access for business or information.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, state security informants reportedly continued to operate on university campuses.
There were a few reports of security personnel disrupting student extracurricular activities.
The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Although the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government often restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings,
demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies, nor does it authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it has not approved in advance. Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assemblies. The government often refused to grant permits for gatherings and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits. Authorities typically cited “security concerns” as the basis for deciding to block assemblies. The government also prevented civil society organizations and political parties from holding press conferences. Police and gendarmes forcibly disrupted meetings and demonstrations of citizens, trade unions, and political activists throughout the year, arrested participants in unapproved protests, and blocked political leaders from attending protests.
On March 9, in Yaounde, police arrested approximately 20 women who participated in a rally, holding up a banner that read, “Stand Up for Cameroon.” According to the organizers of the rally, including Edith Kabang Walla, the president of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP), the event was aimed to call attention to the deteriorating sociopolitical situation in the country. Police released the women after keeping them for a few hours at the judicial police’s regional headquarters.
Authorities also banned some political rallies. In April the divisional officer of Fokoue in Menoua Division, West Region, banned a meeting meant to encourage voter registration by the CRM opposition party. The CRM claimed they notified the divisional officer that they were organizing an event on April 11. This event would have been 10th in a series organized in conjunction with Elections Cameroon, the organization that oversees and administers elections, to encourage more persons to register to vote. The divisional officer initially told CRM leaders the meeting might not be authorized because April 11 was a market day. On April 9, he reportedly changed his mind and instead referred CRM’s leaders to the mayor, whom he said had control over the market place. Organizers said they had contacted the mayor, who said she had planned to conduct a tax collection exercise in the market that day and turned down the request. Further, in June the mayor of Bagangte banned a rally by the CRM at the local ceremonial ground and reportedly justified his decision by saying that the ceremonial ground was meant only for exceptional events and official ceremonies. CRM officials said the ruling CPDM held a meeting at the venue a few days earlier. Authorities also banned rallies by the CRM in Baham and Bandjoun in the West Region.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, but the law also limits this right. On the recommendation of the senior divisional officer, the Ministry of Territorial Administration may suspend the activities of an association for three months on the grounds that the association is disrupting public order. The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security. National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the ministry, but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations and religious groups. The law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association without ministry approval. The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.
Conditions for recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.
Unlike in 2017 the government did not ban any organizations during the year. On July 18, however, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji unilaterally designated three political figures as spokespersons for three opposition political parties, disregarding these parties’ own hierarchies and internal elections. The minister stated the three parties, the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP), the
Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC), and the African Movement for a New Independence and Democracy (Manidem), were suffering from persistent internal crises. He urged administrative command officers nationwide to authorize only events organized by the appointees. On July 20, all three appointed leaders joined 17 other nominally “opposition” leaders to rally with their parties behind President Biya for the October 7 presidential election.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, at times the government restricted these rights. The government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government, however, sometimes failed to respect its obligations under relevant international laws. There were instances where it forcibly returned asylum seekers to their countries and did not provide humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations access to internally displaced persons.
In-country Movement: Using minor infractions as a pretext, police and gendarmes at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways often extorted bribes and harassed travelers. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures. Authorities restricted movements of persons and goods, including motorbikes, in the Northwest and Southwest Regions and some parts of the East, Far North, and West Regions, sometimes for legitimate security reasons, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to harass and intimidate the local population.
On September 28 and 29, the Northwest and Southwest regional governors issued press releases indicating there would be broad limitations on movement from one subdivision to another for 48 hours from September 30 through October 1. This effort was intended to limit any violence associated with October 1, the selfdeclared independence day of Ambazonia.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
Several hundred thousand persons abandoned their homes in some localities of the
Northwest and Southwest Regions because of the sociopolitical unrest. Estimates of IDPs varied depending on the source, with the government estimating 74,994 IDPs as of June, while the United Nations estimated 350,000 IDPs from the
Northwest and Southwest Regions as of September. As of August 31, more than 227,000 persons were internally displaced in the Far North Region, driven from their homes by conflict perpetrated by Boko Haram and the ISIS-WA, according to UNHCR estimates.
In May the United Nations released an Emergency Response Plan for the Anglophone crisis, appealing for more than $15 million to respond to the need for shelter, relief items, sanitation, education, food security, health, and protection of 160,000 persons they estimated were affected by the conflict at the time. In midJune the government released a separate Emergency Humanitarian Action Plan, which requested nearly $23 million to assist approximately 75,000 IDPs over 18 months, focusing on humanitarian assistance for a period of three months and early recovery for 15 months. The government, however, did not provide humanitarian NGOs or international organizations access to IDPs in the Anglophone regions. Although the government made some effort to provide urgently needed assistance to crisis-affected populations, its coordination with the international humanitarian community in the Northwest and Southwest Regions was not forthcoming.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government stated there was no official policy of forcibly repatriating refugees. As in the previous year, however, UNHCR and NGOs reported cases of forced returns of asylum seekers, mostly of Nigerians. According to UNHCR, authorities forcibly returned 800 Nigerian refugees from Cameroon as of July 31. In 2017 UNHCR reported 4,400 known cases of refoulement.
The most recent high-profile case of refoulement took place in the Far North Region. On August 2, UNHCR expressed concern over the death of six Nigerian asylum seekers, including three children, who were victims of the blast from an improvised explosive device on July 29. According to UNHCR, 12 asylum seekers were being forcibly returned to Banki, Nigeria, in a Multinational Joint Task Force truck, which struck the device in Homaka, in the Mayo Sava Division. In addition to the six asylum seekers killed, six others along with six Cameroonian soldiers were injured.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees. UNHCR continued to provide documentation and assistance to the refugee population. UNHCR and the government continued to conduct biometric verification and registration of refugees, including of those not living in refugee camps. Nevertheless, local authorities did not always recognize these documents as official, which prevented refugees from travelling and engaging in business activities. As of September the country reported 696,097 persons of concern to UNHCR, including 246,131 Central Africans and 98,590 Nigerian refugees in rural areas; 18,447 Central African and 1,914 Nigerian refugees living in urban areas; and 6,399 Central African and 27 Nigerian asylum seekers living in urban areas.
Access to Basic Services: Like their rural host country inhabitants only more so, most refugees had limited access to health care, education, and employment opportunities. Access to these services varied according to the location of the refugees, with those in camps receiving support through humanitarian organizations, while refugees living in host communities faced difficulty receiving services. Visiting the East Region in June, Deputy UNHCR Commissioner for Operations George Okoth-Obbo remarked that refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) urgently needed basic assistance, especially food, health care, and livelihood opportunities. He noted that refugees were compelled by their situation to adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as stealing and engaging in prostitution.
Durable Solutions: As of August UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and
Nigeria had not started the voluntary repatriation of the more than 99,000 Nigerians refugees in Cameroon as agreed upon under the 2017 tripartite agreement. In June UNHCR carried out return intention surveys using a sample of 4,000 CAR refugees, which indicated that 24 percent of those surveyed would be interested in going back home, while 74 percent would prefer local integration as a durable solution.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, unofficial protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to hundreds of individuals during the year, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in CAR. Due to their unofficial status and inability to access services or support, however, many of these individuals were subject to harassment and other abuses.