Reporters Without Borders is alarmed by newspaper editor Xavier Messe's long interrogation by the Yaoundé judicial police on 29 July, which follows other examples in recent months of a more repressive government approach to journalists in Cameroon.
Messe, who edits the Mutations daily and is widely respected for his professionalism, was questioned for more than six hours about an article by one of his journalists describing tension and clashes between two members of President Paul Biya's party.
The final sentence, suggesting that President Biya was happy to see members of the Cameroonian elite squabbling among themselves, was apparently regarded by the authorities as “anti-patriotic.”
“We are extremely worried by this long interrogation of the editor of such a well-established newspaper as Mutations over such a harmless comment,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.
“We see it as a clear sign that a tougher line is being taken with the Cameroonian media, especially as other developments confirm this trend. The current security situation is obviously complex, but it should not be constantly exploited to prevent any comments about the president.”
Other examples of a more authoritarian approach include the case of Félix Cyriaque Ebole Bola of Mutations and Rodrigue Tongue of Le Messager, who have been awaiting trial before a military court since last October just for trying to get the police to confirm information for a story involving security. The authorities are still preparing the prosecution case.
Le Zénith editor Zacharie Ndiomo, who spent five months in prison in appalling conditions and without access to his medicine, is again the target of a criminal libel case brought by the same official over the same report. This is a clear violation of legal principle that a person cannot be tried twice for the same alleged crime.
Other examples include parliament's approval last December of an anti-terrorism law that can be applied to journalists. This is particularly worrying because Cameroon has still not decriminalized media offences and often sends journalists to prison.
Cameroon is ranked 134th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the way President Idriss Déby's family and the president's office are manipulating the judicial system in order to censor the media. Two publications have been the targets of arbitrary judicial measures initiated by them in recent weeks.
An N'djamena judge ordered the close of the weekly Abba Garde on 10 July at the request of the High Council for Communication, which in turned acted in response to a complaint by the president's office. A separate court order issued the same day demanded the seizure of all copies of issue No. 109 of the newspaper.
Both orders appear to have been issued in response to an article headlined “Idriss Déby, the Hitler of modern times” in issue No. 108, which was published in late June.
“Regardless of what the journalist wrote, the decision to close the newspaper contravenes Chad's 2010 press law, article 44 of which says that such a decision can only be taken by a court after a hearing in which the affected party is able to defend itself,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Unfortunately, this hearing has been postponed three times. Furthermore, the seizure of issue No. 109 is clearly an arbitrary measure because it was the preceding issue that had the offending article. We call on Chad's courts to respect the country's laws and to rescind Abba Garde's closure at once.”
Abba Garde publisher Moussaye Avenir de la Tchiré said harassment of the newspaper began on 5 July, when members of the National Security Agency tried to arrest him while he was in the southeastern town of Bongor, located on the border with Cameroon. De la Tchiré then crossed the border and has remained abroad ever since.
Very critical of the government, Abba Garde is widely read in N'Djamena. This is not De la Tchiré's first run-in with the judicial authorities.In 2013, he was detained for four months and was given a two-year suspended jail sentence.
Haut Parleur publisher Stéphane Mbaïrabé Ouaye is meanwhile being sued by one of the president's brothers, Salaye Déby, over an article accusing them of “supporting the dictatorship.”
On 22 July, Ouaye received a summons to appear at an N'Djamena court hearing “with the purpose of finding him guilty of the facts of which he is accused and sentencing him to pay Salaye Déby the sum that will be set by the court.”
The wording of the summons is extraordinary in that it clearly shows that Ouaye has been convicted in advance.
Newscase is an aggregator with a difference. It distributes the content of 100 partner publications by publishing entire articles. Readers can customise the news they receive, selecting up to 15 publications, as well as various themes, to download a personalised online newspaper.
The news app, which currently features German publications, is about to go global. It recently signed an agreement with Trinity Media Group to distribute 30 British publications, including the Guardian. It is also negotiating with publications in Brazil.
The idea of personalised news is not new. It is already possible to customise news choices on websites such as Google Alerts or Flipboard. However, while these direct users to the servers of the original publication, newscase publishes the entire articles on its domain. This means it’s also possible to download and read the articles when offline, (or even choose to have them read aloud in an expressive voice that mimics a news broadcaster through the app’s audio function).
“Our main target group, the so-called millennials, are commuting on a daily base, have very limited time for news consumption but have various interests and care especially for news diversity,” said Wanja Oberhof, who co-founded the app in 2012. “Newscase is made for them because it allows users to create their own personal and digital newspaper and read it wherever they are, no matter if they are online or not.”
“Our editorial credibility comes from the partners with whom we work,” said Stephan von Wrede, sales manager and one of eight staff in newscase’s office. Newscase is currently available on smartphones and tablets, Android and Apple (Apple i-phone users are 10 times more likely to pay for apps, according to von Wrede).
Like fellow journalism distributor, Blendle, where readers pay per individual article, newscase charges a fee. Premium users, who have access to all online news content, including content normally behind a paywall, pay 9.99 euros per month for a premium subscription.
The company puts their subscriber revenue in a pool, which they divide between the publications based on the amount of articles which are read. “They earn money when we earn money,” said von Wrede. “They don’t get money in advance, but they get paid when we are paid.”
The company (which recently changed its name from Niiu) also employs a staff of 10 developers in Goa, India, and an office in New York, where the start-up is part of a six-month German Accelerator program.
International expansion is a logical next step for newscase, according to von Wrede. Germany, where 95% of all press is local, is an unusually difficult market.
“I don’t think there’s any other country in the world where you have so many local newspapers,” von Wrede said, explaining that most regions have their own devoted local paper. “If you go to Brazil, you only have to talk to eight publishers and you have covered the entire country, but in Germany you have to talk to 80.”
The de-centralisation of news in Germany also means it is hard to attract national attention for apps such as newscase. “If you launch a product in Berlin, you will not be automatically secure that people in Munich will take notice of that,” he said. “That is easier in the UK, where you only have to be in four or five cities, including London.”
Yet while paid online news content is now a time-tested phenomenon in many parts of the world, like the US, it’s still an experiment in Germany, according to von Wrede. “Who knows where this paid content train will go?” he said.
Reporters Without Borders is extremely concerned about Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance reporter who went missing near the western city of Turkmenbashi on 7 July. It was finally reported on 29 July that he is being held incommunicado by the authorities.
Nepeskuliev works for the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and the Netherlands-based news website Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN).
He called his family on 7 July from Avaza, a Caspian Sea town near Turkmenbashi where he was doing research for future stories, and he told he would return that afternoon. But he never came back.
After several days, worried relatives contacted a police station in Turkmenbashi, where the police suggested he might have drowned. After further extensive enquiries, the family finally discovered on 28 July that he is being held in a prison in Akdash, near Avaza, for alleged possession of drugs, a charge they categorically deny.
“Saparmamed Nepeskuliev's arbitrary detention is all the more worrying because torture is systematically used in Turkmen jails,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“Given the Turkmen government's attitude towards independent news media, it is clear that his imprisonment is linked to his journalistic activities. We urge the authorities to end the secrecy surrounding his current status and to release him without delay.”
Nepeskuliev mainly covers social and infrastructural issues in the area around Turkmenbashi and his nearby hometown, Balkanabat, including the quality of the water, the state of the roads and access to healthcare.
In late May, he produced a photo-reportage for RFE/RL about a luxury residential complex for senior officials. He has also highlighted the lack of concern by the local authorities about the state of public services and the rising cost of basic foodstuffs.
"Saparmamed is a very brave journalist and a civil activist who truly loves his hometown and wants to change things for the better by reporting on acute social concerns,” ATN editor in chief Ruslan Miatiev told Reporters Without Borders.
“His articles and photos for ATN always triggered discussion and found support among the residents of the region where he lives. I have no doubts that Saparmamed's persecution is entirely politically motivated."
Media freedom is non-existent in Turkmenistan, an information black hole that is ranked 178th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, above only North Korea and Eritrea.
Turkmenistan's only independent media are based abroad, and reporting for them from inside the country is very risky. Osmankuly Hallyev, who had reported for RFE/RL's Turkmen service for years, had to stop in June after he was interrogated and threatened and several members of his family lost their jobs because of his work.