Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right, explicitly or implicitly. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on the freedom of speech, assembly, and association.
Freedom of Speech: 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 invoked laws requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse.
On July 24, the senior divisional officer for Upper Plateaux in the West Region, Yampen Ousmanou, sent a warning letter to Jean Rameau Sokoudjou, the traditional ruler of Bamendjou in the West Region, accusing him of rebellion after he organized a meeting in his palace on July 18 without prior approval. The meeting reportedly brought together citizens of diverse political sides and civil society groups to exchange ideas about the country’s future.
Freedom of Press and Media, including Online Media: Private media were active and expressed a wide spectrum of adherence to journalistic ethics. The landscape included constraints on editorial independence, in part due to fear of reprisal from state and nonstate actors, including separatists connected to the armed conflict in the two Anglophone regions. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions, including financial repercussions, for criticizing or contradicting the government.
Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists. Journalists were arrested in connection with their reporting on the Anglophone crisis. The state’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on journalists created de facto restrictions.
On May 15, according to reports by multiple organizations, including the National Association of English-speaking Journalists, security forces arrested freelance journalist Kingsley Fomunyoy Njoka. He was taken from his home in Douala and detained incommunicado for 24 days. According to Njoka’s legal team, the security forces accused him of criticizing the government’s handling of the Anglophone crisis on social media. On June 12, the Yaounde Military Tribunal indicted the journalist on multiple counts, including secession and collusion with an armed group, and placed him in pretrial detention at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde. On July 13, Njoka filed a defamation complaint against Colonel Cyrille Serge Atonfack, the Ministry of Defense’s communication officer. The suit followed a July 5 interview on Equinoxe Television, during which Atonfack said that Njoka admitted he participated in the killing of former separatist fighters who surrendered at disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) centers in the Northwest and Southwest Regions. He characterized Njoka as the coordinator of the Bui Warriors, an armed separatist group based in Bui, Northwest Region. On June 30, Reporters without Borders noted the allegations against Njoka had not yet been substantiated. They stated that persons close to the journalist characterized his criticism of the government’s handling of the Anglophone crisis as factual and stated the security forces probably monitored him because he regularly discussed the conflict with colleagues.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Under a 1990 law, the Ministry of Communication requires editors to submit two signed copies of their newspapers within two hours after publication. Journalists and media outlets reported practicing self-censorship, especially if the National Communication Council had suspended them previously.
Following the February 14 killing of civilians by security forces in Ngarbuh, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji attacked media for publishing the Human Rights Watch report that accused the Cameroonian army of killing civilians. Atanga Nji particularly targeted Equinoxe Television, STV, Radio Balafon, and Le Jour, asking them to stop relaying false information designed to undermine Cameroonian security forces (see also section 1.a.).
Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is constrained by libel and slander laws. Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses. The law authorizes the government to initiate a criminal suit when the president or other senior government officials are the alleged victims. These laws place the burden of proof on the defendant, and crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines. While the government may initiate criminal suits when the president or other senior government official are alleged victims, ordinary citizens may also file libel or slander suits, but the law is often applied selectively and privileges senior government officials and well connected individuals. Some persons successfully filed defamation suits and prosecuted perpetrators. In other cases, courts were reluctant to open hearings. For example, Paul Chouta was detained for alleged defamation of a person who was close to the government, whereas courts failed to acknowledge Alice Nkom’s and Maximilienne Ngo Mbe’s defamation suit against someone associated with the government and did not open hearings on the case.
National Security: Authorities often cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to threaten critics of the government.
Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that separatist groups in the Southwest and Northwest Regions sought to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. In a January article available online, journalist Moki Edwin Kindzeka reported that journalists in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions said separatists were attacking them because of critical reporting and their refusal to broadcast rebel propaganda. He said separatist intimidation was reportedly intensifying as the country prepared for local and parliamentary elections, which the separatists had vowed to stop. Mbuotna Zacks Anabi, the manager and presenter of the community radio station Stone FM in the town of Ndop in the Northwest Region, said the station stopped broadcasting after armed men stormed it on January 27 and set the building on fire.
Anecdotal reports indicated that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government occasionally disrupted access to the internet.
Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, some school authorities reportedly sanctioned academic personnel for teaching politically sensitive topics, and administrative officials often deterred teachers from criticizing the government.
On May 6, Horace Ngomo Manga, the vice chancellor of the University of Buea, terminated the contract of Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, an instructor in the Department of English Law. The decision was reportedly taken by the university’s disciplinary panel after Higher Education Minister Jacques Fame Ndongo urged the vice chancellor to address Agbor Balla’s alleged ethics violations. Ngomo Manga cited an examination question during the first semester of the 2019-20 academic year that read, “The Anglophone crisis since 2016 was caused by the lawyers’ and teachers’ strike–assess the validity of this statement.”
On October 24, unidentified armed men killed seven children and wounded at least 13 others during an attack on Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy, a school in the town of Kumba, Southwest Region. In a press release also released on October 24, Minister of Communication Rene Emmanuel Sadi attributed the attack to separatists. He said 10 heavily armed men on three motorbikes entered the school and opened fire on students inside classrooms. Reports indicated attackers also used machetes. He reported that five girls and one boy died during the attack and described the conditions of several of the wounded as critical, noting that they were taken to hospitals in Kumba and in other nearby towns.
The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
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 for public assemblies, nor does it authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it did not approve 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. Progovernment groups, however, were generally authorized to organize public demonstrations.
On August 13, the divisional officer of Yaounde II, Mamadi Mahamat, banned the civil marriage ceremony of MRC leader Maurice Kamto’s spokesperson, Olivier Bibou Nissack, which was scheduled to take place at Massao Hotel in Yaounde. Mamadi stated that the organizers of the marriage did not seek authorization for the public event. He also called into question the credentials of Civil Status Secretary Valentin Lewoua, who was to help officiate the marriage. He further stated the chief officiating officer, traditional leader and Maurice Kamto associate Biloa Effa, had been removed by the minister of territorial administration in December 2019.
On August 15, the divisional officer of Nkongsamba in the Littoral Region banned a meeting of the MRC scheduled to take place at the party’s headquarters. Following the ban, some MRC members met at the residence of a colleague, Fabrice Tchoumen, for a private discussion. On August 19, the chief commissioner in Nkongsamba, Joseph Hamadjam, summoned Tchoumen for questioning on August 24, saying that he organized a meeting at his residence without authorization. As of September, the MRC had not reported any ongoing legal proceedings following the questioning.
In September authorities took a series of administrative decisions banning public demonstrations after the MRC called for peaceful protests on September 22 over the government’s decision to organize regional elections before resolving the crisis in the two Anglophone regions and advancing electoral reforms. On September 11, the governors of the Littoral and Center Regions banned public meetings and demonstrations indefinitely. Three days later, Territorial Administration Minister Atanga Nji, in a letter to the two governors and the governor of the West Region, urged them to arrest anyone organizing or leading demonstrations. On September 15, Minister of Communication Rene Emmanuel Sadi warned political parties that protests could be considered “insurrection” and that illegal demonstrations across the country would be punished under the antiterror law. The communications minister also threatened to ban the MRC.
On September 19, the headquarters of the opposition CPP in Yaounde was surrounded by more than 30 police officers and gendarmes. The Yaounde district officer stated that the CPP was holding a public meeting without approval, but CPP president Edith Kahbang Walla said in a statement published the same day that they were holding a regularly scheduled meeting for their members.
According to MRC leaders, an estimated 593 party members were detained throughout the country after they attempted to hold peaceful marches on September 22. Several persons in the Yaounde protest sustained minor injuries. They were reportedly arrested due to concerns they were participating in an insurrection. Videos of the protest showed security officers dispersing crowds with water cannons and tear gas and police firing rubber bullets at protestors. The MRC reported that security forces seriously wounded one individual at the residence of its leader, Maurice Kamto, during the night of September 21.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the law also limits this right. On the recommendation of the prefect, the Ministry of Territorial Administration may suspend the activities of an association for three months on 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 the president must accredit religious groups upon the recommendation of the Minister of Territorial Administration. 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, and associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty with their activities tolerated but not formally approved.
During the year the government did not officially ban any organizations, but it restricted the MRC’s activities, and virtually prohibited all events planned by the party. In a September 7 press briefing following the announcement of regional elections, Minister Atanga Nji suggested that the MRC could be officially banned. The Ministry of Territorial Administration regularly used threats of suspension against political parties, NGOs, and media outlets. c. Freedom of Religion
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, at times the government restricted these rights. Growing concerns over the entry of armed groups into Cameroon from the Central African Republic, the conflict with Boko Haram and ISIS-WA in the Far North Region, and the armed conflict in the two Anglophone regions appeared to have prompted the government to adopt a more restrictive approach to refugee movements. The government made it more difficult for refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons to move freely in the country.
In-country Movement: Using minor infractions as a pretext, police and gendarmes often extorted bribes and harassed travelers at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, including national identity cards, passports, residence permits, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures. Just as in the previous year, humanitarian organizations cited difficulty in accessing certain areas and in some instances were harassed and denied passage by government authorities. Unaccompanied women were frequently harassed when traveling alone. Authorities restricted movements of persons and goods, including motorbikes, especially in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, citing security concerns. Armed Anglophone separatists also restricted the movements of persons and goods in the two Anglophone regions, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to harass and intimidate the local population. Separatist warlords “taxed” cocoa trucks passing through rural areas of the Southwest region. They often used weekly lockdowns referred to as ghost towns to enforce restrictions on movement, in which the armed separatists demanded all businesses close and residents stay home.
On March 13, Northwest Region Governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique signed an order prohibiting the circulation of motorbikes. The order was enforceable daily in the divisions of Bui, Mezam, Momo, Menchum, Ngohketunjia, and Boyo from 6:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. For the same reasons, on September 4, the mayor of Bamenda, Paul Tembeng Achobong, announced a ban on commercial and private motorbikes within most of the city, scheduled to begin on September 7, with the goal of limiting separatist activity in the city. In a press release later that day, Northwest Region Governor Lafrique endorsed the ban and accused separatists of perpetrating attacks on motorbikes. Hours later, the leader of the Southern Cameroons Civil Society Consortium separatist group, John Mbah Akuroh, stated in a video on social media that the prohibition would impoverish thousands of commercial motorbike riders and their families and urged car owners in Bamenda to ground their vehicles until the government lifted the ban.
Foreign Travel: Citizens have the right to leave the country without arbitrary restrictions. The movement of some political opponents and debtors, however, were monitored, and their travel documents were often confiscated to confine them to the country. To obtain exit permits, citizens need a valid passport and visa for their country of destination. With the development of human trafficking operations and networks, children and young women were often subjected to more stringent controls at border locations, including airports.
According to UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, there were 1,755,787 persons of concern as of July, including one million IDPs, of whom 297,321 were in the Far North Region and 679,000 in the Northwest and Southwest Regions. In addition, the country had an estimated 354,360 returnees in the Far North, Northwest, and Southwest Regions. The population of concern increased by more than 58 percent since 2018. Mass displacements in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of the country, largely after lawyers’ protests and a teachers’ strike in 2016 morphed into armed conflict, were the primary drivers of this increase. Humanitarian access remained very limited, since military officials maintained tight control over access in the area. Additional factors driving displacements included the desire to flee Boko Haram violence.
The government put in place disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration centers to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs in the Far North, Northwest, and Southwest Regions. Reports suggested the government’s DDR centers were inadequately resourced, and many of the returnees left them. Provision of basic social services to IDPs and assistance to returnees were carried out by relief actors with minimal support from the government. In the Northwest and Southwest Regions, the government did not facilitate efforts to ensure unfettered access for humanitarian actors to deliver aid to persons in need. It made some efforts, however, to provide urgently needed in-kind assistance to crisis-affected IDPs in the Northwest and Southwest Regions based on its Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan. This assistance was distributed to populations without an assessment of their needs and only to persons in accessible areas, especially in regional capital cities.
The government at times cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations regarding treatment of IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. The country operated an open door policy. This policy, however, was not translated into a progressive legal framework allowing refugees their rights as stated in various legal instruments.
Refoulement: Unlike in 2019, there were no reported cases of forced returns.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees, but the implementation of this system was weak. UNHCR continued to provide documentation and assistance to the refugee population, although local authorities did not always recognize the documents as official, which prevented refugees from travelling and engaging in business activities. UNHCR and the government continued to conduct biometric verification and registration of refugees in the Far North Region, including those not living in refugee camps.
Freedom of Movement: The government often cited security concerns and suspected criminal activity to restrict the movement of refugees and asylum seekers.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees had limited access to health care, education, and employment opportunities. Their rural host communities faced similar problems, but the situation was somewhat worse for refugees. Access to these services varied according to the location of the refugees, with those in camps receiving support through humanitarian assistance, while refugees living in host communities faced difficulty receiving services.
Durable Solutions: In October 2019 the United Nations and the governments of Cameroon and the Central African Republic (CAR) initiated the voluntary repatriation of some 4,000 CAR refugees from Cameroon. Some 500 refugees reportedly signed up in the first phase of the program. By the end of December 2019, UNHCR had repatriated more than 3,500 CAR refugees out of those who expressed the desire to return. The repatriation followed a June 2019 tripartite agreement between Cameroon, CAR, and UNHCR to provide for a safe and dignified repatriation of 285,000 CAR refugees to their home country. Repatriation of CAR refugees stopped in the first part of the year due to funding shortfalls and COVID-19 restrictions.
Temporary Protection: The government continued to provide temporary and unofficial protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to hundreds of individuals, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in the CAR. Due to their unofficial status and inability to access services or support, many of these individuals were subject to harassment and other abuses.