One of Africa’s utmost press freedom heroes, Cameroonian journalist Pius Njawe has faced relentless harassment by the authorities throughout his career. In the past thirty years he has been arrested 126 times and served prison time on three different occasions. Despite ongoing adversities, Njawe continues to publish his newspaper Le Messager. In 1993, he was awarded the WAN Golden Pen of Freedom in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the independent press in his country. Pius wrote...read more
One of Africa’s utmost press freedom heroes, Cameroonian journalist Pius Njawe has faced relentless harassment by the authorities throughout his career. In the past thirty years he has been arrested 126 times and served prison time on three different occasions. Despite ongoing adversities, Njawe continues to publish his newspaper Le Messager. In 1993, he was awarded the WAN Golden Pen of Freedom in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the independent press in his country. Pius wrote this article for the World Association of Newspapers on the occassion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
I have been a journalist since the age of 15. I started as an errand boy at a newspaper called Semences africaines, in the city of Yaoundé, Cameroon. Over the past 34 years, I have been arrested 126 times while carrying out my profession as a journalist. Physical and mental torture, death threats, the ransacking of my newsroom, etc., has often been my daily lot in a situation where repression and corruption, even within the press, have become the norm. Woe betide the slightest dissenting voice in this context, for it attracts all kinds of wrath, even from so-called colleagues…
My longest detention lasted ten months. I was arrested on 24 December 1997 for daring to wonder about the President's health after he had experienced heart problems whilst watching the Cameroonian football cup final. On 13 January 1998 I was sentenced to 24 months in prison. Four months later, the sentence was reduced to 12 months under pressure from national and international public opinion. But that was not enough to remove the pressure, and after ten months, the President resigned himself to pardoning me, a pardon I had never asked for.
I have never felt like a prisoner when I have been behind bars. You can be in prison without being a prisoner; the real prisoners are those who imprison journalists whose only crime is to inform or to express an opinion. On the other hand, being deprived of your family, your colleagues and the people you love is a real ordeal; and the tears you cry say less about being behind bars than about the pain and suffering your absence causes on all sides. I used to shed my tears in the arms of Jane - my late wife - and my children, when I saw the suffering they had to endure to come and see me in prison, as if my absence from them was not enough for my persecutors. I could not stop myself from crying when Jane gave birth to a still-born child on 9 January 1998, four days before my trial, following beatings she received the previous day when she brought me food, by prison guards who did not even have pity on her late pregnancy.
While my many detentions have largely contributed to confirming my convictions about certain democratic and human values, my long stay in prison above all stimulated my sense of solidarity with others, particularly the poor and the outcast. It strengthened my determination to use journalism as a weapon against all kinds of abuse. For there is no better weapon than words for restoring peace and justice among people, although it depends how those words are used.
To have the privilege of writing taken away from you overnight feels like being victim of a crime. The prison governor called me into his office one day to warn me that as a prisoner I did not have the right to write, and that my persistence would land me in solitary confinement. I immediately started to think about what my long days would be like in a cell I was sharing with more than 150 fellow detainees, almost all of them crooks, if I could not write. So I decided to defy the governor's ban by stepping up my bi-weekly column, "Le Bloc-notes du bagnard" (The Convict's Notebook), in my newspaper Le Messager. The chain of people I was bribing - including prison guards - to get my column out, was long; I have always wondered how I would have survived in that prison without writing.
During a lecture I once gave to students from a well-known university in New York, the director of the school of journalism made the following remark: "Mr. Njawe, my students and I appreciated your brilliant exposé of the situation regarding press freedom in Cameroon and in Africa in general. But I cannot help wondering one thing: either you invented all these stories to impress us, which I could understand, or everything you have told us is true and I am dying to ask you why you continue to work in the profession in the suicidal situation you describe?"
It is indeed difficult to understand why people persist in a profession that causes them so much misery and suffering. As regards my own case, I invariably reply to everyone who wonders this, that I entered journalism the way you enter a religion; journalism is my religion. I believe in it, and a thousand trials, a thousand arrests, a thousand imprisonments and as many death threats will never make me change job. On the contrary, the harder it is, the more you have to believe in it and cling to it.
Even in the depths of a prison cell you can feel good about being a journalist. How many times have I not rubbed my hands in my cell, my fingers itching to once again hold a pen between them, when thinking back over my career? How many times have I smiled when recalling an editorial or an article that helped foil the most atrocious plans against Cameroon and its people? If only for consolation, one sometimes ends up saying: "They're right to take it out on me like this, after all, I haven’t spared them in my articles…". Provided, of course, that you adhere to the best practices of journalism - that you scrupulously respect the canons that make our profession so great.
Respecting ethical standards is of fundamental importance for anyone wishing to be a journalist. It protects you against all kinds of people who would like to teach you a lesson. When you are facing a judge who is being manipulated, it is your irreproachable professional defense that makes that judge examine his or her own conscience. It is what wins your colleagues over to your cause when you are in difficulty. Doing your job properly therefore seems to be the best advice anyone can give a journalist operating in a context of constant harassment. And doing your job properly also, and above all, means avoiding "gumbo journalism", a practice becoming increasingly widespread in our profession, where people write what they are paid to write instead of giving real information and the truth. While journalists have the right to earn a decent living, even in emerging nations, honest journalists never need pockets in their shrouds…
Journalists perform a social function, which gives them not immunity, but the right to look critically at the way a nation is being run. While playing this crucial role, it is important for them to be protected by the law, but also by the whole of society for which they work. Mobilization is therefore essential every time a journalist is thrown into prison, or threatened with arrest or death. Because every time a journalist is silenced, society loses one of its watchdogs.
* This article was made available by the World Association of Newspapers to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Visit for more information.
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