The origin of freedom of speech could be traced to 400 BC in ancient Greece, where the citizens of Athens had the latitude to freely express their ideas and opinions in public without fear of persecution or prosecution (1). The right to freedom of speech has evolved over the years and has found its way into several declarations, international conventions, and various domestic legislation guaranteeing the right to express ideas, information, and opinions without government restriction. The right to freedom of speech has seen its evolution through the French Declaration of the Right of Man, which provided that ‘men are born and remain free and equal in right;’ and the American Bill of Rights; to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, different domestic legislation and other international agreements (2). Although there was growing recognition of the right to freedom of speech in different states worldwide, this right was denied to Cameroonians who succumbed under President Ahmadou Ahidjo’s authoritarian regime for about 22 years (3). The ascension to power of President Paul Biya in 1982 didn’t make things better until the political uprisings of 1990, which coerced him out of the one party to the multiparty system; and to the recognition of the right to freedom of expression/speech and opinion as enshrined in the 1990 liberty laws (3). The above developments further led to the introduction of the right to freedom of speech in the February 1996 constitution, which is the supreme law of the state.
The Right to Freedom of Speech in Cameroon: The Legal Arsenal
The right to freedom of expression or speech is a fundamental human right enshrined in several international and regional human rights instruments (4). These instruments protect individuals’ rights to hold and express their own opinions freely without any government interference. However, many governments and individuals that wield power around the world always find ways to obstruct this right (5). The right to freedom of speech guarantees individuals ‘the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or print, in the form of art, or through any media’ (Article 19 UDHR). These rights are not absolute and are subject to certain restrictions by the state when necessary and as provided by the law. As such, the right to freedom of speech can be restricted by the state in response to the respect of the rights and reputation of others and for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or public health or morals (Article 19(3) UDHR). However, the relevant authority must demonstrate that the restriction is appropriate and necessary to address a specific issue. Freedom of speech gives people the latitude and right to express their views aloud through public protest and demonstrations or published articles, books or leaflets, the internet, social media, works of art, television, or radio broadcasting. Freedom of speech and opinion is protected by the Cameroonian legislation and, at the same time, regulated to prevent abuses and to protect national security, public order, public health, and/or public morals. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the preamble of the February 1996 constitution, which clearly states that ‘the freedom of communication, of expression, of the press, of assembly, of association and of trade unionism as well as the right to strike shall be guaranteed under conditions fixed by the law.’ Cameroon has signed and ratified many international and regional human rights instruments that protect the right to freedom of speech (6). Cameroon restructured its legal arsenal in 1990 to include legislation relating to individuals’ civil and political liberties, freedoms of associations, trade unions, etc. Before being enshrined in the 1996 constitution, the right to freedom of speech, speech, and the press was consecrated by Law N°90/046 of December 19, 1990. that repress whatever is considered as subversive. The 1990 liberty laws safeguard the right to freedom of expression and opinion and grant individuals the latitude to hold opinions and to express their ideas freely. This law grants individuals the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or print, in the form of art, or through any media of their choice (7). This law also demands that everybody should be free to express their opinions without fear of oppression or suppression and prohibits the prosecution or persecution of individuals based on their opinions (8). Law No 90/52 of December 19, 1990, relating to freedom of mass Communication, also guarantees freedom of the press and safeguards journalists’ rights to express their opinions and views freely. The law further demands the freedom of the mass media in the dissemination of information to the public. It requests that the media be open and accessible to all those who wish to reach out to the larger public. However, the same laws provide that competent authorities may restrict the enjoyment of these rights in response to the respect of the rights and reputation of others and for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or public health or morals. Decree No 91/287 of June 21, 1991, which set up the National Communication Council, and Decree No 2012/38 of January 12, 2012, which recognized the National Communication Council and several other laws which guarantee and regulate the protection of press freedom have been enacted in Cameroon. The Penal Code punishes acts of blackmail (Section 303) while Sections 305 and 307 punish individuals for defamation and abuse, respectively, with the penalties of defaulters laid down in sections 60-89 of the Penal Code. The exercise of the right to freedom of information (freedom of speech/expression, freedom to hold opinion, freedom to seek and deliver information) prohibits the attack on the person or the reputation of others, the diffusion of false information, the use of information to instigate national, racial or religious hostilities and propaganda for war (9). Article 17 of the 1990 liberty laws permits the Minister of Territorial Administration to ban a press organ when its activities are considered a threat to the national interest. The law also permits any competent administrative authority with territorial jurisdiction to order the seizure of a press organ when the press organ conflict with public policy (public order, public health, public morals, national security). An anti-terrorism law was also enacted in December 2014, which impedes journalists’ right to freedom of speech because they risk a jail sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of 25 to 50 million CFA Francs for defending terrorism. The exercise of these regulatory mechanisms and the control of media broadcast by state authorities greatly impede citizens from enjoying the right to freedom of speech.
Are Cameroonians Free After Free Speech in Cameroon?
Determining whether Cameroonians are free after free speech in Cameroon is a continuous debate that relies on the evaluation of the sequence of ongoing events in Cameroon. Although Cameroon has signed and ratified several human rights instruments and has enshrined in its legislation laws that protect and promote the freedom of speech in Cameroon, its regulatory role significantly impedes the enjoyment of this right. Contemporary events in Cameroonian society reveal that politicians, journalists, freedom fighters, and human rights defenders have been targeted by government authorities and some non-state actors for expressing their views and/or opinions on certain issues. The measures faced by these individuals include degrading, dismissal from positions of authority within the government, transfer to very remote areas as well as arbitrary arrest by government authorities, or kidnap by non-state actors. It can be argued that these punitive measures undermine the right to freedom of speech and contradict the existing domestic and international norms safeguarding the right to freedom of expression and opinion. With the degeneration of the Anglophone problem to violence since 2016, many journalists and human rights defenders have been arbitrarily arrested, have gone on self-exile, or kidnapped for simply expressing their views and opinions on the crisis. Some of these individuals in government jail include Mancho Bibixy, Atia Tilarius, Finian Tim Njua, Thomas Awah, Amos Fofong, Achamba Hans, and Mofor Ndong. Mimi Mefo of Equinox TV, arrested and accused of propagating fake news and endangering state security, was later released and fled to Europe to seek refuge (10). Also, Ambe Macmillian was accused of disseminating information that supported the resumption of schools and denigrated the Anglophone struggle, was kidnapped, and later released some secessionist fighters (11). These examples demonstrate that the right to freedom of speech is in greater jeopardy in a crisis in Cameroon and thus stimulates thinking towards enacting laws that protect the right to freedom of speech in crisis.
Professor Pascal Messanga Nyamding – the former head of department for Regional Integration and Management of Community Institutions at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon – was dismissed from the institution days after he appeared on Equinox TV station declaring that the country was poorly run by President Paul Biya’s entourage and that individuals are forced to create relations with Ferdinand Ngo Ngo – Secretary of State at the Presidency – if they hoped to gain juicy positions in government and/or the administration. He ascertained that he should remain an underdog in the government as much as he remains at loggerheads with Ngo Ngo (12). Nyamding has been very active on TV and radio stations, singing praises for President Paul Biya. However, he has always been very bitter against many individuals who hold top political ranks within the Biya regime. After having been summoned by SED (Secretariat d’Etat a la Defense), he has been fired from his function at IRIC and has been transferred to the University of Ngaoundere, where he is expected to lecture at the annex faculty of law and political science. This decision by the Minister of higher education came just a few days after he appeared on TV criticizing the behavior of some top government officials. Whether his dismissal and transfer constitute a genuine act or a disciplinary measure remains debatable. Still, the fact that this happened just a few days after criticizing some top political figures on TV could insinuate the abuse of power by some officials. Such a decision could be interpreted as a violation of his right to freedom of speech due to the timing of events. Why dismiss him right after his speech on TV?
The difficulty with human rights law, in general, is that state sovereignty gives states the latitude to restrict some rights at particular instances for the sake of national security, public order, public health, and public morals. What constitutes the problem is that these situations are only appreciated by different states when deemed necessary, thereby enabling some state authorities to restrict such rights based on these premises even when there are no clear indications of such. The question as to whether the government of Cameroon genuinely protects the right to freedom of speech remains rhetorical because the dichotomy that exists between the protection of freedom of speech and the regulation of free speech in Cameroon remains significantly blurry. However, it can be argued that some actions of the Biya regime reveal that it implores state sovereignty and the latitude to restrict the right to freedom of speech, opinion, and assembly to safeguard its selfish interest and to punish political opponents.