“Even with the risks, harassment and intimidation I sleep peacefully at night because I known I am doing the right thing”
Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture 2019
Mimi Mefo Takambou
Good evening everyone
I feel truly honoured to be standing here this evening to deliver the Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture at this prestigious African Investigative Journalism Conference 2019. I feel more honoured to be here at Wits University in Johannesburg which has been the cradle of many inspirational people and Nobel Peace Laurates. Considering the crop of persons this university has produced, it is not surprising that someone as great as Carlos Cardoso was formed here.
I will start with a quote from one of the alumni of this great University. In February 1994, shortly before he become the first Black President of South Africa, he said
“A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
I am sure the person who said this needs no introduction, because then, I will end up making this lecture about him. Nonetheless, as I read that quote, I kept wondering how it must have been for Cardoso. Having worked in junior positions in government media as editor of the government press agency, AIM, I am sure he became familiar with a thing or two about the drudgery of breaking down the walls of bureaucracy and digging through the rubbles of corruption to get to the heart of a story.
I often tell people that journalism is not just a profession, it is a vocation, a calling. Some may use the two interchangeably, but I often feel there is a significant difference between a profession, which one chooses because of the need to work and earn money to enjoy the finer things of life and a vocation, to which one is called, and they have no choice but to obey. Journalism is like the story of Samuel in the Christian Bible. You are called three or more times and even when you misunderstand the call, you will keep coming back till you say in submission ‘Speak Lord, Your Servant is Listening’. Or it could be like the proverbial story of Jonah, who runs away from the call to speak the truth to the people of Nineveh. After being swallowed by a fish and staying in its belly for three days, he is vomited, right where he had been running away from. YES! The Call to be a journalist is so strong, that despite the risks we face, despite the knowledge that it could get us imprisoned or killed, we still cannot help ourselves. We must and always do strive to go to the bottom of every story. It sometimes involves going to the most dangerous places and taking risks that defy ordinary reason. It even involves using the belly of fish as transport to get to where we have to be, to deliver the message of truth regarding the societies we live in.
It is, therefore, not surprising that despite being imprisoned and working as an advisor to the legendary Samora Machel, and working as an artist, Cardoso finally came back home. I am sure that the days Cardoso felt like a real human being were those on which he founded Mediacoop, Savana and Metical. Because, as journalists, our lives end the day we are told we cannot investigate a story and tell it as it should be told. That is why journalists often rise up from the rubbles and look for alternative ways to bypass the challenges in our paths to make sure society’s stories are told. When I read that Cardoso was investigating banking scandals for several years before he was killed on 22 November 2000 and that a few years after his assassination, other publications confirmed his initial findings, I said to myself ‘Bingo’. IF THEY TRY TO SHUT YOU DOWN, ALWAYS KNOW THAT YOU ARE ON TO SOMETHING. It is not a coincidence that the most repressive governments, where there is no freedom of press, happen to be the most corrupt.
I am sure every journalist in this auditorium today has experienced what it must feel like to have been in Cardoso’s shoes. Of course, with the exception of the assassination part, since we are all alive. I, for one, know a thing or two about the feeling one gets for being shut down from telling a story. I know what it feels when you are told not to use certain words when reporting a story about that word. I know how it feels to be imprisoned for just doing my job the right way. I know what it feels like to know that investigating a story might just be a waste of time because the editor will be too scared of the government to dare publish it; I know a thing or two about how it feels when the story gets told and the whole media house is shut down, everyone looks at you as if you are a curse, you caused them to lose their jobs, their livelihoods; I know a thing or two about how it feels when in telling a story, one feels as if they are deliberately putting the lives of their family and friends in danger; I am sure I know a thing or two about that feeling we get when we complete a story and it feels like we have just written our death warrants.
Despite all these, why do we continue to investigate and publish stories? It is because journalism is not just a profession, it is a vocation!
We cannot help ourselves because even when we try, we soon discover that we end up imprisoning ourselves, because to a journalist, not telling a story the way it is, is akin to being in prison, where you cannot do what you want.
So, let us all at this stage pay homage to our many colleagues who are imprisoned either physically, or mentally, in countries where press freedom is suppressed. I am thinking particularly of my colleagues in Cameroon.
I am going to tell you a bit about Cameroon, so that you can understand why it is important for the stories in my country to be investigated and told without fear or favour. So please bear with me because it might be a bit boring.
Cameroon was formerly a colony of Germany. When the Germans were defeated in the First World War, Cameroon was shared between the British and French in 1918. The League of Nations Ratification of this arrangement in 1922 gave France 80% and the United Kingdom had 20% of the former territory of German Kamerun – spelled with a K at the start and U in the place of the two Os. These two sections of the country were administered separately until 1960 when French-Speaking Cameroon became independent. In 1961, a Plebiscite organised by the United Nations gave English-Speaking Cameroon or Southern Cameroons the opportunity to vote in on how they wanted to be independent and it involved two choices – join already independent French Cameroon or already independent Nigeria (another country to the West). They voted to join French Cameroon in 1961 and the two countries came together to form a Federation. It was meant to be two equal states with the French and English language, education and legal systems operated equally but separately within the two sections. Unfortunately, this was not to be, as the majority French-speakers systematically marginalised the Anglophones starting with a dissolution of the Federation and unifying the country as one administrative hyper-centralised entity in 1972. This can be said to have been the start of the Anglophone Crisis, because the English Speakers started resisting what they felt was unjust treatment.
Over the years Anglophone Cameroonians have fought and clamoured to get back the Two-State Federation or go back to the 1961 status, but all this has been met with highhanded repression from successive governments. Did I just say ‘successive’? Well, that must have been a mistake, given that I have only known one government in Cameroon since I was born. But that is a story for another day.
In 2016, Anglophone lawyers and teachers began peacefully protesting the poor standards within the justice and educational system. They were brutally attacked by the police and many ended up in jail. Teachers went on strike, meaning that children could not go to school. Instead of resolving the situation and granting the demands of the lawyers and teachers, the government of Cameroon arrested even more people and in February 2017, shut down the internet to prevent human rights abuses being shared on social media. A faction of the Anglophone population intensified their demands to the effect that, they want to break away and be a separate country from French Cameroon. Some of them took up arms to fight the state. The situation, therefore, escalated and has turned into a civil war. In one of the very early reports I did on the crisis, I went to many villages which had been abandoned, one of them, Mblangui. My hope at the time was that by telling the story, the government will realise that its approach was harming the people it was meant to serve. That by telling that story, some compassion could fill the hearts of people in high offices and a resolution would be found to avert what was clearly becoming a worsening crisis.
Not surprisingly, the government rather intensified its crackdown on the media and banned us from using the word ‘Federalism’ in our reports. Can you imagine that? We were to report about a crisis that started with a demand by lawyers stating that ‘only a Two-State Federation or outright independence can save the Common Law and Anglophones’, yet we were not allowed to use the word ‘federalism’. It is not surprising that people chose to use the alternatives and this has plunged the country into a nightmarish conflict.
Children have therefore been out of school since 2016. Over 250 villages and towns in the English-speaking regions have been burnt by government troops, hundreds of thousands of people have fled to Nigeria where they are refugees and many more are internally displaced within Cameroon. International organisations say over 3000 people have been killed but pro independence advocates who have been taking stock of happenings on the ground will tell you the figures are even more.
For those without the ability or means to flee, life has become nasty, brutish and short. Before our own eyes, our once beloved country is returning to the Hobbesian State of Nature where people are becoming wolf unto their neighbours, their sisters and brothers. Journalists do not even have time to report about ‘federalism’ anymore because they are too busy reporting about killings.
Generally, in life, we are often defined by the stories told about us. So, every society is as good or bad as the stories the media tells about it. Journalists therefore have the power to shape society. They can only do so if they are free to do their jobs.
I became a journalist because of this knowledge that it is a profession that has the power to change society. I was working as a reporter for Equinoxe, a private TV Station in 2016 when the current phase of the Anglophone Crisis started. I was therefore duty-bound to report the events as they occurred. I had to sometimes go into very dangerous places just to make sure I got the story right. Sadly, this meant that I was obligated to report the atrocities the government of Cameroon was committing against civilian populations.
I had two choices – report on events exactly as they happened and risk the wrath of the government or compromise on my integrity and honour as a journalist and tell the stories in a manner that suits the government’s narrative of events. The first choice meant I was likely to get into serious trouble, while the second choice meant I was going to be very miserable as I would be turning a blind eye to injustice.
When the internet was shut down for over 330 days, Equinoxe remained one of the few sources of information about what was really happening in the English-Speaking Regions. As our TV station was based in Douala, a city in the French-Speaking part of Cameroon, we went into the blacked-out regions, collected facts about stories and reported them, so the rest of the world could know what was happening. I also started an online News Network known as Mimi Mefo Info (MMI), to report on stories that my supervisors at the TV station could not air. They could be shut down by the government if they reported on some stories.
I am sure you have already guessed. I landed into serious trouble with the government of Cameroon. In addition to the many stories I reported that got the government really angry, one stands out in particular. It is the story of an American missionary who came with his family to work in the English-speaking regions and was shot and killed by the Cameroon military. The government did not want anyone reporting on the story as it happened. MMI prides itself on being not only prompt in reporting the news, but also doing so with the utmost objectivity. There was, therefore, no way I could maintain my integrity as a journalist without being objective. Hence, despite all the risks, I chose to report the truth about the killing of the missionary, rather than keep quiet or report the version the government wanted. There is only one reason for this; journalism is not just a profession; it is a vocation. A calling from which we cannot run away, despite the dangers.
I was arrested and charged with terrorism. What the government did not know was that my impartiality in news reporting had won me many friends, not only in Cameroon but across the world.
I guess I also did not know that at the time.
However, as soon as I got arrested, campaigners for press freedom both within Cameroon and across the world sprang into action. They used social media and every other means of campaigning available and within a few days, the Cameroon government could not bear the pressure. They released me after four days and dropped all the fake charges they had brought against me. The truth, had prevailed. I had just won a battle against injustice and I had done so without compromising on the standards of my profession. The war however was just starting. There is the general misconception that once a journalist who is falsely imprisoned for doing their job is released, the problem ends there.
My imprisonment had several effects:
- The government thought that I had been silenced by it. I went quiet for a while and nothing was being published on MMI. The anger that was manifested when I resumed publishing was palpable. They could not fathom how a journalist who was meant to have been threatened by imprisonment, had become bolder.
- Some of the non-state actors who joined in the campaign for my release felt that I owed them my freedom. It was therefore with a lot of chagrin that they found that I did not succumb to their requests to become a propaganda tool for them, but rather would report on their actions that were newsworthy, without compromising on the truth.
- Many journalists and professions living in Cameroon became scared of associating with MMI. What this meant was that at a time when the network was rapidly expanding, it was more difficult to get people to work with. It took longer and huge efforts for me to restore confidence and build the team I currently have.
- MMI itself became the focus of several hacking attempts. The web engineer had to work extremely hard to ensure that the website was not pulled down. Other forms of assaults came in the nature of impersonation attacks. A number of websites sprang up with names similar to Mimi Mefo Info and several Facebook pages were created. These webpages and social media sites copied information from MMI and then added their propaganda and sometimes damaging information. I had to work with Facebook to get my page verified and to pull them the fake ones. A couple of the websites are still existing and using my name.
When the attacks on MMI did not appear to faze me, I began receiving all sorts of online bullying, attacks and even dead threats. Even from non-state actors as I report atrocities on both sides. Each side, wanting me to paint a favourable picture for them about happenings on the ground. For instance:
- Some newspapers wrote front page articles saying that I was working in complicity with the Cameroon diaspora and the international community to destabilise Cameroon. Such headlines appeared on a large number of French-Cameroon papers; whose readers were more likely to be oblivious of the Anglophone crisis.
- I was receiving personal attacks on Social media, some from the separatist camps saying that I must have been bribed by the government while in jail. At the same time, when news articles did not favour the government, I received messages telling me I would be raped or killed if they caught me anywhere in Cameroon.
- I received messages calling me names, which I cannot repeat here, so as not to undermine your sensibilities. This often happened when I was approached to work for one side, and I turned them down.
- Recently, I even received a call from someone who asked me to change a news story to suit the version he wanted. When I told him that if he wanted to go on record, I will be happy to officially take his side and publish it in addition to the original story, he would not have it. The next day, I received a voice not from many sources, and to my utter surprise, it was my conversation which had been recorded. Even though I did not say anything compromising, he could not help himself but share what was meant to be a private conversation.
The more people have tried to intimidate me from doing what I know is right and important for the wellbeing of the millions of people trapped in the conflict, the more determined I have become.
The challenges are still enormous, given that the conflict is raging on, so when I got the opportunity to work in Germany, I maintained reporters in Cameroon who are ensuring that the news is still being reported through MMI. They are very courageous men and women, but I must hide their identities because of the danger they face if they become exposed.
I must tell you all one thing though. If I had the choice of choosing my profession again, I will choose journalism. But I really do not think I have a choice, because it is a call to which I must respond. It is a vocation such that no matter what I do, no matter how weary I get, I hear myself waking up to that voice and responding – SPEAK LORD, YOUR SERVANT IS LISTENING!
It is one of the most difficult jobs if you work in a repressive country. But guess what, when I go to bed at night, I often sleep peacefully, because I know I am doing the right thing. And guess what, I doubt that the repressive government officials have any sleep. They are probably kept awake by the fear of journalists reporting stories about them.
The problems of Cameroon are no doubt symptomatic of those in other Countries, especially the ones that are caught up in conflict and cycles of violence. Sadly enough, the threat to press freedom is now seeping into the fabrics of even the most advanced democracies. It was for example, with a heavy heart that I read stories of how Australian Newspapers had to carry heavily redacted front pages, as part of a campaign to protest laws restricting press freedom. It was with a much heavier heart when the government of Australia denied me a visa from going there to talk about Press Freedom. Their flimsy excuse was that I will not return to Germany, where I have an amazing job with DeuscheWelle. If a country with strong institutions such as Australia is also struggling with issues of press freedom, how much harder must it be for journalists working within repressive regimes. I guess South Africa is in trouble for giving me a visa. I probably will not be going back to Germany.
When you watch footages of journalists reporting in Cameroon or Equatorial Guinea, or Sudan or Libya or even Nigeria and South Africa, I imagine the challenges they must face. That feeling of knowing that presenting the factual account of a situation could lead to imprisonment or attacks on oneself and family, has pushed many a journalist to do what is contrary to their nature – keep quiet in the face of injustice.
But all hope is not lost. The fact that I am talking to you, is testament to the fact that we can still survive. We can still report the news as it is, go to prison, come out and continue, despite the mounting challenges. But one that is clear, we can only do it if we have a strong network around us. The network that stood up for me from both within and outside Cameroon, is what every journalist needs. That network begins with every journalist working in fear, every journalist in jail for reporting the news, every journalist whose freedom is being restricted by unjust laws to every journalist who has the responsibility to report against injustice.
It, however, does not end with journalists. It extends to every human being with integrity, who wants the world to be a better place. I invite you all today to become champions for press freedom.
Cardoso was a brave man, he tried to run away from it, but he kept being called back to journalism. He could have ignored the corruption and let millions of people suffer as a result. He might still be alive today. But I am sure if he had a choice again, he will still choose to investigate, because that is what journalists do.
As we honour him today, I want us to make a commitment, that we will continue to fight for a world where the press is free. Where journalists or their families are not attacked and killed for just doing their jobs. A world where children can proudly say they are going to grow up and be journalists and their parents will not retort with ‘do you want to get killed?’.
Take on to social media, talk to your MPs or other representatives. The worst thing anyone can do is to do nothing to help the thousands of journalists imprisoned or killed for simply doing their job.
Remember: A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy and it is the one sure way through which we can all protect our rights as citizens
Thank You and God Bless you all.