Open letter urges President Biya to render justice to journalist who died in prison

Published on 7 May 2010

Reporters Without Borders wrote today to President Paul Biya calling for exceptional measures and bold, deep-seated reforms to improve press freedom in Cameroon. The Cameroonian authorities cannot continue to take no action in response to the death two weeks ago of journalist Ngota Ngota Germain, also known as Bibi Ngota, in Yaoundé’s Kondengui prison, the letter said.

Here is the letter:

HE Paul Biya President of the Republic Palais de la Présidence Place de l’Unité Yaoundé, Cameroon

Paris, 7 May 2010

Dear President Biya,

You must be aware that the death of journalist Ngota Ngota Germain, also known as Bibi Ngota, in Yaoundé’s Kondengui prison on 22 April sent shockwaves not only through the journalist community in Cameroon but also society in general and the international community.

Hundreds of Cameroonian journalists gathered outside the prime minister’s office in Yaoundé on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, to pay tribute to their deceased colleague. Several of them were roughed up by the police. When Polycarpe Essomba, a reporter for Equinoxe TV and Radio France Internationale (RFI), was manhandled and beaten, his shirt was torn and he lost his jacket, passport and money. We deplore the fact that the Cameroonian police often use force against journalists and that this peaceful sit-in was broken up in this manner.

After our correspondent visited Bibi Ngota and two fellow journalists in the main Yaoundé prison, we alerted your government on 20 April to the deterioration in their state of health. We condemned their detention in collective cells and their lack of access to medicine and treatment. Nothing was done and Bibi Ngota died in detention two days later.

The circumstances of his death are now a matter of dispute. Quoting from an internal report by the prison doctor, communication minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said Bibi Ngota’s death was the result of his alleged HIV seropositivity, in particular, “from the consequences of opportunistic infections in a context in which his immune system had completely collapsed.” This is disputed by the deceased’s family and colleagues, who say they are outraged. They insist he was suffering from hypertension, asthma and a hernia for which he needed an operation, and they condemn the fact they he did not receive appropriate care.

This case must obviously be treated with the utmost seriousness. It is vital that the exact causes of this journalist’s death are determined with precision. If it appears that the prison authorities were at least partly responsible for Bibi Ngota’s death, because they failed to give him the necessary treatment, we think that exemplary sanctions must be imposed. We ask you to guarantee the independence of the investigation.

We also reiterate our request that Bibi Ngota’s two colleagues, Serge Sabouang, the editor of the fortnightly La Nation, and Robert Mintya, the editor of the weekly Le Devoir, who are still held in Yaoundé’s main prison, be granted a provisional release pending trial.

The case of another journalist, Lewis Medjo, the editor of the weekly La Détente Libre, currently imprisoned in Douala, must also have been brought to your attention. Held since 22 September 2008 and convicted on a charge of disseminating false information, he is serving a three-year sentence. We have already had occasion to express our view that the sentence is unjust and out of all proportion to the alleged offence. This case should have been dealt with by other means than imprisonment. We therefore call on you to grant him a pardon so that he can be freed.

We have for years been urging the Cameroonian authorities to follow the example of other African countries and decriminalize press offences. We ask you, through your communication minister, to support the holding of a national conference on the media in 2010. The media law must finally be modified to make it less repressive and to introduce penalties for press offences that are more appropriate and just than imprisonment. We reaffirm our desire to accompany you in this initiative by offering our expertise and our recommendations.

Reporters Without Borders believes that a journalist cannot die in such circumstances in Cameroon without a strong reaction from the authorities. This tragic event must at least serve to arouse concern and foster a favourable evolution in the environment for Cameroonian journalists. We therefore urge you to undertake the exceptional measures and bold, deep-seated reforms we have outlined in order to improve press freedom in your country.

As president, you have on several occasions said you would like to leave democracy as your legacy in Cameroon. In our view, today more than ever, you have an opportunity to demonstrate the firmness of your commitment to rights and freedoms.

We look forward to a positive response from you to all our requests.


Jean-François Julliard Secretary-General