How government media misrepresents the struggle in Cameroon

We have all used oral forms of communication to tell our stories for as long as we have been able to form words and create sounds, but every new form of communication since then, whether in written word, printing media, radio or television, has taken the power of storytelling and given it to a select few who control these forms of communication. Social media and the internet is empowering individuals to tell their stories, since the fourth estate in Cameroon is almost obsolete or controlled.

There have been large rallies, civil resistance movements and days of ghost towns in West Cameroon since November 8th 2016 in order to try and show the government that West Cameroon, an equal member of the union between two separate Cameroons, is tired of injustice, human rights abuse, marginalisation and the systematic dissolution of their identity as people. As West Cameroonians use people power[1] and civil disobedience to call for reform, how is the government-controlled fourth estate telling the story of the people in an age of abundant information? We will try to succinctly describe the dynamics of nonviolent resistance before analysing the reporting of the Anglophone problem by state media (Cameroon radio and television (CRTV) and Cameroon Tribune).

Background of the dynamics to civil resistance

Nonviolent action or civil resistance is a situation where ordinary people mobilise and fight for their rights and dignity using disruptive actions, but without using violence. Disobedience is centre stage of this action and involves forms or resistance like protests, persuasion, noncooperation and nonviolent intervention. It empowers people by uniting them in a vision and giving them a shared stake in the outcome of their struggle.

Over the years, through lessons from other nonviolent resistances like the civil rights movement in the USA, and Gandhi’s civil disobedience of British imperial rule in India, we have come to experience that nonviolent civil resistance shifts power from oppressive rulers and regimes to the civilian population and reduces the moral authority and legitimacy a ruler needs to keep control of the government and the people. When the system’s own supporters begin to doubt the continuity of the system they begin to shift their loyalties; the balance of power shifts to those using civilian-based resistance and the legitimacy of the movement increases because of popular support. Consequently, it opens up political spaces for genuine democracy. The takeaway from this brief description of the dynamics of civil resistance is that power belongs to the people contrary to the wisdom of tyrants presented to the Cameroonian public by government print and audio-visual media that belongs to the political elite.

The most common misconceptions about nonviolent action in West Cameroon is that some activists think it is inaction or the avoidance of confrontation, though they have been able to exercise restraint towards confronting brutal and violent government soldiers. The biggest misconception by the Biya regime about the Anglophone resistance is that they think nonviolent campaigns need charismatic leaders to succeed, hence the arrest of Anglophone leaders Nkongho, Fontem, Mancho, and Ayah; the list is long. It is true to say that movements need leadership, but the arbitrary arrest and jailing of CONSORTIUM leaders is the biggest misconception of the people’s movement, for leadership is easily transferable. At this juncture we ask the question, how does state media (Crtv and Cameroon Tribune) report the nonviolent civil resistance of West Cameroon? Is the reporting fair or biased?

The framing analysis of government media vis-à-vis the Anglophone struggle

The way Crtv and Cameroon Tribune frame their reporting of the strike action in West Cameroon is aimed at creating a conceptual structure around our perception of the Anglophone problem. These two entities determine what part of the Anglophone struggle they find significant to shape public opinion away from reality and the meaning of the Anglophone story in Cameroon. They work for a government that determines the content of the publications and reporting on the subject of the Anglophone struggle. Because the government is bent on sweeping the problem under the rug by accusing West Cameroons of armed violence, both medias then tend to be obsessed with seeing violence where violence is not. By so doing, the government-owned print and audiovisual media in Cameroon has misinterpreted and misrepresented West Cameroon’s proposal for a return to the two state federation as a means to manage diversity sustainably.

The most sensational argument used by the Crtv on a daily basis since the start of the strike is the politically motivated allusion to the constitutional stipulation of  a “one and indivisible” Cameroon. Yet they forget to mention that the same clause ends with the assurance of equality for both Cameroons. West Cameroon’s demand for a return to the federal state because the promissory of equality given to them has been dishonoured and they have been pushed to the peripheries of society while the powerful elite of East Cameroon stays in the centre, mirroring colonial masters.

“I would die before I give credibility to a media house that thinks federation is synonymous to secession,” is the conclusion of the street and on social media in response to Crtv and Cameroon Tribune reporting. They overemphasise the position of the government, downplaying the repression[2] and marginalisation of West Cameroon, leading to incomplete conclusions and biased information aimed at winning sympathy for the government over the marginalised people. Boaz holds that this way of reporting is either aimed at creating the impression that the nonviolent resistance has failed or to make actors turn to violence out of the desperation to fight back.

One of the major biases employed by the Crtv and the Cameroon Tribune, in reporting the Anglophone struggle in Cameroon, is what Cynthia Boaz calls the fragmentation bias;[3] it has been covered in fragmented and seemingly unrelated pieces. Cameroon Tribune tries to Photoshop the struggle to a halt by putting up fake pictures on the front page of the weekly newspaper to deceive both Cameroonian people and the international community that the civil resistance has been called off and that life has returned to normal. On the other hand, since social media reports show a ghost town, Crtv cannot help but contradict the publication of Cameroon Tribune, then invoking the constitutional argument of unity and indivisibility, rather than the larger historical and political context. Most often the stories of the government media houses lean towards stories pandemonium, isolated acts of extreme political violence and the repressive regime seen as the way out, struggling to normalise the situation. All of these biases result from journalistic laziness, lack of understanding of the larger context, lack of understanding of subject matter and allegiance to particular persons, groups and institutions.

The Ideal

The story of West Cameroon’s struggle through nonviolent civil disobedience is not one about violence or the cultural preference of English speaking Cameroon over French speaking Cameroon. It is the story about a courageous, massive and united nonviolent resistance against oppression and injustice. It is a proposal of the most sustainable way to manage diversity and improve accountability. Even as it puts secession on the table as an alternative to federation, it is not a hate movement. It is a story of a people trying to assert their identity and determine the future of their children and persuade every conscientious citizen to recognise and tell the story that way, on behalf of the resisting, the resisted and the observer.

The ideal media would tell the story from the perspective of those resisting not from those repressing. But since the situation is the reverse in Cameroon, people have learned to tell their own stories through social media. As a result, there is an attempt to limit free speech by blocking internet connection in the English speaking West Cameroon and threats of jail terms and fines in East Cameroon if social media postings report or discuss the Anglophone struggle.

[1] Civilian based movement that use nonviolent tactics to fight against some type of power structure – be it a tyrannical regime, a government, or a corporation in order to establish and defend human rights, justice and establish democratic self-rule. People power focuses on nonviolent action because if the people do not obey, the ruler cannot rule.
[2] By repression here I am referring to the actions taken by the Cameroonian government through its power structures to stifle dissent and quash civil mobilization and opposition to their established order. In downplaying the repressive tendencies of the government, the government controlled fourth estate reinforces the top-down approach to power that is near impossible for ordinary people to challenge because they want to make the people feel powerless and dependent on established order and goodwill of the power structure in Cameroon.
[3] Boaz, Cynthia (2010), Swallowing the Camels: How the Media Misinterpret Nonviolent Struggles. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.