THE REACTION OF SELECTED PRINT MEDIA ORGANS VIS-À -VIS THE COMMUNICATON COUNCIL OF CAMEROON
|Journalism and Mass communication
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The existence of a council to regulate and check media excesses has been recognised as a necessity in other parts of the world. In Cameroon, there is presently a debate over the role and powers of the National Communication Council, also known as the NCC. This study aimed at reaching a comprehensive assessment of Cameroon print journalists perception of the National Communication Council. That is, to understand their continuous criticisms of sanctions issued by the council. The research problem was addressed by conducting qualitative interviews with journalists from six newspapers found in two towns: Buea (South West Region) and Douala (Littoral Region). Interviews revealed that Cameroon print journalists consider the National Communication Council as an organ which is not autonomous with members being appointed by the Head of State and therefore not completely independent of the Executive as they should be. Consequently, it is recommended that media professionals should be associated in the formation of a new organ and that the law creating this organ should be enacted by the parliament. Also, the new agency should include a new parameter in its functions: the training of journalists on best reporting practices.
Journalism as a profession has always been at the centre of every society and mostly described as the “fourth estate of government”. In Cameroon, this occupation hasits role clearly stated and stipulated in Law No. 90/052 of 19 December 1990 on freedom of communication. Its constitutional responsibility is also outlined in Chapter 08 of the 1990 Constitution and specifically Section 04 gives a definition of who a journalist is and some obligations partaking to the profession. It states in:
(1) Is considered a journalist, anyone, who, on the basis of his intellectual faculties, training and talent, is recognised as being fit to search and process information for social communication.
(2) The criteria for the identification of a journalist, thus defined, are determined by regulation.
(1) The journalist is obliged to treat information with objectivity and responsibility.
(2) Professionals associated to the journalism profession are also bound by the requirements of journalistic ethics.
Journalism Code of Ethics is fixed by regulation after consultation of the National Communication Council.
Considering the power linked to journalism as a profession, the third American President and a great philosopher of his time, President Thomas Jefferson debating on the relevance of the press once stated that:
[…] since the basis of democracy is the opinion of the people, the very first objective is to keep it right. If it were left for me to decide whether we should have a government without the press or the press without the government, I should not hesitate a moment to choose the latter. (Akinfeleye, 2005, p. 4)
Considering the investigative nature of their job, the power of journalists in the society has increased. Unfortunately, this rise of power has led to some excesses from some journalists who easily cross the ethical line. Consequently, there has been an increase in public concern about the unethical behaviours of journalists such as defamation, media manipulation and violation of privacy as observed among some media professionals.
In Cameroon, a country characterised by a plurality of mass media, there has been a series of unethical behaviours among print journalists. On February 1, 2006, three newspapers: L’Anecdote, La Météo and Nouvelle Afrique published a list of homosexuals without balancing their stories, that is, they did not go to the persons concerned to find out if it was true; therefore making their stories mere speculations. In fact, names of government officials and close collaborators of the Head of State were among the people cited. Their stories brought shame and dishonour on many families because in Cameroon, homosexuality is considered a crime as referred to and penalised in Article 347 of the Penal Code which stipulates: “A person who engages in sexual intercourse with another person of the same sex shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of six months to five years and to pay a fine ranging from 20 000 to 200 000 francs”. Hence, the three newspapers were sued and found guilty of unethical practice which is one of the reasons why a council is necessary to check the excesses of the media. There are some journalists who still drag the profession behind and create the debate on the usefulness of the National Communication Council. It is on this note that this study intends to examine Cameroon journalists’ perception of the National Communication Council in order to have an exhaustive description of their expectations towards their regulatory agency.
This study on the reactions of some private media organs to the National Communication Council stems from the fact that journalists seem to always criticise the council decisions.
The National Communication Council (NCC) is a regulatory and consultative body, with legal capacity and financial autonomy. It is placed under the Prime Minister, Head of Government. Set up by Law No. 90/052 of 19 December 1990 on freedom of Social Communication, its organisation and functioning are governed by Decree No. 2012/038 of 23 January 2012 reorganising the National Communication Council. The NCC is made up of nine (9) members including a Chairman and a Vice-President. The current members were appointed by the presidential decree No.2013/044 of 22February 2013.
To fulfil its missions, the NCC has a General Secretariat, under the authority of a Secretary General, appointed by decree of the President of the Republic. The NCC provides guidance on the overall policy on social communication, the attribution of audio-visual communication licenses to private enterprises and the distribution of radio-electric frequencies allotted for the broadcasting of radio and television schedule. The Council can also make recommendations pertaining to laws and regulations with respect to social communication, professional ethics on social communication, protection of human rights and dignity by the media, protection of women, children and youths by the media, and transparency, pluralism and the balance of programmes in communication enterprises. These are basically the primary role of the National Communication Council.
But, where the relationship between the Council and the press becomes conflicting is at the level of regulation. In fact, Decree No. 2012/038 of 23 January 2012 reorganising the National Communication Council, in paragraph 2 of chapter 3, gives the Council the prerogatives to temporarily sanction media organs for a period not exceeding six months and to pronounce definitive bans. Examples of such sanctions were in the NCC press release of February 25, 2015. The newspaper La Nouvelle and its Publisher Jacques Blaise Mvie were suspended for a period of six months while the newspaper DEPECHE du Cameroun and its Publisher Gilbert Avang were definitely suspended. Despite the fact that these sanctions are meant to promote best professional practices in the press, journalists are highly sceptical about their credibility since they are pronounced by people appointed by the government. In fact, since the “reactivation” of the Council in January 2012, journalists have been contesting and rejecting its role, especially the new powers given to the Council, particularly those highlighted in articles 3 and 4 of the above-mentioned decree. Journalists feel uncomfortable with these powers which used to be placed under the Ministry of Communication and the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation. Le Messager in its issue No.3518 of 25 January 2012 published an article concerning the decree reorganising the Council. The title was: “Medias, Alerte, La Censure revient?” (Media, Alert, Is this the return of censorship?).This headline suggests that, as far as journalists are concerned, NCC is tantamount to censorship, which means they have gone back to the years before the 1990s;a time when the government was firmly controlling the mass media. For them, it seems to be a soft way of reintroducing censorship. Indeed, in page 5, it is written within the article: “l’oncraintce nouveau pouvoir donné au CNC dans la mesure où cet organe, selon l’alinea 3 du décret, est place auprès du Premier ministre, chef du gouvernement et n’est pas totalement indépendant du pouvoir exécutif” (There are concerns about this new power given to the NCC because, according to paragraph 3 of the decree, this body is placed under the authority of the Prime minister and is not totally independent from the Executive).
This story in Le Messager was an indication of the state of mind of the Cameroon private press. It implies that even before the council started to be operational, Cameroon journalists were already sceptical about the council role and structure. They criticised the fact that the council is placed under the authority of the Prime minister. According to them, such decision was going to tremendously affect the council credibility in the sense that Cameroon journalists will perceive the council decisions as influenced by government officials because the members are appointed by these officials. Journalists’ concern was mainly related to the fact that the NCC is linked and not totally detached from the Executive branch of the government. This situation gives room to government interference in the council affairs.
Another important issue related to the statute of the National Communication Council, is coming from the Journalists Trade Union which recently, through the voice of their President Denis Nkwebo, stated that the mandate of the council was terminated since December 2014. In fact, the January 2012 decree reorganising the council states in article 15 paragraph 3 that in case of vacancy of the president of the Council exceeding a period of 6 months, the President of the Republic in relation with the Prime Minister has to appoint a new president. In other words, the mandate of the Vice President of the council, which was to last for 6 months since the death of the President of the council Bishop Befe Ateba on 4 June 2014, is terminated since December 2014. And because it has not been renewed, it is therefore illegal. The direct implication is that, due to this illegality, the council cannot sanction media anymore because it is not legitimate. This new development worsened a situation which was already tensed. It worsened the situation because media which were sanctioned by the council went to the extent of rejecting the council decisions. Their arguments were that the council was not a legitimate institution anymore. For example, the private television Afrique Media which was closed by the police in August 2015 because they did not comply with the Council decisions. This is the present state of the relationship between the Council and Cameroon journalists. On one side, there is the National Communication Council, the regulatory agency passing sanctions on media and on the other side Cameroon media which have deliberately refuse to recognise the Council as their regulatory agency and therefore reject its decisions.
Media regulatory bodies around the world exist primarily not to sanction mass media organs, but to ensure that media professionals abide to their code of ethics. They participate in creating a conducive atmosphere in the society by making sure that both journalists and their readers’ rights are respected. It implies that apart from screening media reports, they equally participate in enforcing journalists’ rights.
The case of the British press is particular because it has been out of state regulation for a long time. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, there was no law regulating the field. According to Media Policy Project (2014), with the exception of wars or conflict situations, the press was free and not under any form of control by the government. This lack and absence of control of the press led to unethical practices on the part of journalists, which later became a public concern. These complaints led to the establishment of a series of Royal Commissions and other official inquiries. This first step towards the establishment of regulatory bodies was a failure because of the inappropriate measures.
In July 2011, the Telegraph a British daily newspaper following the “phone hacking scandal” at the News of the World, reported that all stakeholders agreed to establish a committee whose role was to check the excesses of the press in terms of ethical reporting. This was done by a senior judge of the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, Sir Brian Leveson, who published his report in November 2012. One year later, that is on 18 March 2013, the stakeholders came to the conclusion that the Leveson Report was to be implemented by the “Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press”.
As we can see, the issue of press regulation is a global issue. Thus, considering the importance of regulation, the Vice-President of the National Communication Council, Mr Peter Essoka, on 17 March 2015, published a press release where he was called journalists’ attention on some of the fundamental journalistic values. He informed the public and media professionals of the security crisis Cameroon is going through as a result of sporadic incursions by foreign groups in the Far North and East regions and called media professionals to be cautious while playing their threefold role of informing, educating and building social reliance.
This communiqué of the head of the National Communication Council came once again to remind us that there are discrepancies in the journalism profession and of the need of such an institution to set the framework under which journalists should do their job in order to avoid chaos.
But, since this was issued by the NCC, it faced violent criticisms from journalists, who, through the media, rejected this call of the regulatory agency in the name of freedom of the press. The issue brought back on the table the debate on the role of the National Communication Council and at the same time, that of media regulation.
Therefore, this study aims at documenting and examining the reasons of the conflict existing between journalists and the National Communication Council. Journalists seem to seldom agree with the decisions of the National Communication Council. This conflicting atmosphere is the consequence of journalists existing negative perceptions of the NCC mandate. In fact, since the decree reorganising and appointing officials of the Council, journalists did not hide their disappointment with the Council. The reason being that since the NCC is placed under the authority of the Prime Minister, thereby of the government; the members appointed will be loyal to state authorities to the detriment of the press. According to journalists, by opting to appoint officials, instead of allowing them to elect their representatives, the government was reintroducing censorship. Therefore, the problem seems to be the rejection of the National Communication Council by journalists. This problem more precisely lies in the status of the Council which journalists consider as subservient and therefore not reliable. This study wants to find out from Cameroon journalists if it is true that the problem between journalists and the NCC is that they do not see it as being autonomous. What can be the reasons for such a situation? This is the question which is going to drive this study. Doing so may potentially help transform the field of journalism. Because it will givea better understanding of journalists’ expectations towards the media regulation body and may participate in helping the Council to have a clear definition of what journalists think it may look like.
The primary objective of this study is to document journalist’s perceptions of the National Communication Council.
Describe journalist’s perceptions of the National Communication Council.
Examine the reasons for journalist’s existing negative perceptions vis-à-vis of the NCC.
- What are print journalists perceptions of the NCC ?
- What are the reasons for journalists existing negative perceptions vis-à-vis NCC mandates?