RSF decries judicial travesty intended to silence investigative weekly

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) unreservedly condemns the increased sentences that two Cameroonian journalists court received on appeal today and accuses Cameroon’s justice system of complicity in an attempt to silence their publication, Kalara, a serious investigative weekly that specializes in covering court cases.

What with systematic violation of defence rights, failure to define the offence and exorbitant fines, the list of violations of the right to due process is as long as the ploys used to eliminate Kalara.

At the end of appeal proceedings that were as unbelievable as the original trial, Kalara publisher Christophe Bobiokono and journalist Irène Mbezele were given suspended two-year prison sentences on charges of defamation and “insulting a state institution,” Bobiokono was fined the equivalent of 6,080 euros and Mbezele was fined the equivalent of 2,300 euros.

Officially, the case dates back to two stories in October 2018 quoting what then ruling party parliamentarian and lawyer Faustine Fotso said about a court case during a dinner party. Based on a recording made by one of the guests without her knowledge, Kalara reported Fotso’s description of the ploys she used to influence decisions by judges, including Judge Joël Albert Bias, in a dispute between two politicians, a brother and sister, who were fighting over a legacy.

The original trial a year ago, which went on through the night before reaching its improbable conclusion, was presided by Bias, the very judge whose probity was questioned by Fotso in the recording obtained by Kalara. And remarkably, one of the Fotso’s own witnesses confirmed that Fotso had tried to bribe journalists who went to her law office to ask her about what she had said in recording.

Key omission

The appeal hearing held on 4 December to examine the substance of the case went ahead without the two journalists’ lawyers being present because they were on strike that day. The journalists had requested a postponement but their request was ignored. As a result, they were unable to properly present the arguments and evidence for the defence.

A more serious flaw was the deliberate exclusion of a key signed statement from the hearing, a statement that RSF has seen. In this statement, which Fotso made to a court official before deciding to file her suit in 2018, she acknowledged saying what was on the recording and tried to explain why she said it. At no point in this statement did she deny being the person speaking in the recording. The statement therefore demonstrates the innocence of the two journalists beyond any dispute.

Cameroonian judges have twice been complicit in completely unfounded prosecutions designed solely to prevent this newspaper from continuing its investigations,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “This case should have been quickly dismissed but instead the survival of the newspaper that was clearly the target of all these manoeuvres is now threatened. As for the two journalists, they also have a threat hanging over them, the possibility of being jailed if they cannot pay the very heavy fines to which they have been sentenced.

Bobiokono told RSF he intends to refer the case to Cameroon’s supreme court, which offers the only hope of ending this persecution, reaffirming the law and ensuring his newspaper can continue operating.

A unique example in central Africa of a publication specializing in the judicial system, Kalara provides detailed coverage of all of the leading criminal cases in Cameroon and is widely quoted.

It has often reported the many irregularities in the proceedings against Amadou Vamoulké, the former head of the state radio and TV broadcaster CRTV, who has been held for the past four and half years on a charge of misusing public funds and is being subjected to a drawn-out trial that, in the absence of any evidence, is not progressing. As RSF reported, he appeared in court this week for the 50th time and has just completed his 1600th day in detention.

Cameroon is ranked 134th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.