Chi Ernest Cho, Deputy Editor in Chief of Equinox TV in Douala, Cameroon, was my primary point of contact in organizing the OCRPL's first conference for journalists in Cameroon.
I quickly discovered that Chi was a celebrity in Douala, constantly being recognized by a number of taxi drivers during my few days in the country. Chi is also distinguished as one who has experienced police brutality and detention as a journalist and the main anchor person for news.
In late January 2008, Cameroonian authorities closed down the private Equinox TV “because they were critical of the government.” Equinox TV was suspended because of its very independent reporting and programmes. The government admits the reports were stimulating but charged that they incited rebellion and violence. The closure provoked widespread protest in Douala, where Equinox TV is based.
It is even believed that the suspension was one of the factors contributing to the February 2008 general strike against rising food prices, the cost of fuel and constitutional amendment. The protests left over one hundred people dead.
The government claimed that the closure was prompted by the illegal nature of the operation of the TV station. In Cameroon, the official procedure required for electronic media to operate is to submit a written application and a deposit of CFA Franc 50 million.
In late June 2008 the government agreed to let the TV station re-open after considerable pressure from diplomatic sources in Cameroon. Equinox TV came back on the air in late August.
Status of Journalism
The 25 English-speaking journalists representing mostly radio and TV stations discussed ‘The Challenge of Reporting the Truth’ and especially the challenges facing women in mainstream journalism.
Our discussions identified several key reporting challenges in Cameroon:
1) The widespread practice of ‘envelopes with money’ to secure a favourable news reports.
2) A lack of money for reporters to do proper investigative and independent journalism.
3) Censorship and self-censorship are common, but not as pervasive as in many other countries.
4) Media managers are often hiring unprofessional younger people to do journalist jobs, and the management often let more experienced journalist be fired after some time and hire cheaper labour.
5) The circulation of newspapers have deteriorated sharply over the last few years, no newspaper in Cameroon has a print run of more than 10,000 copies.
6) Tribalism and occultism are also issues of some importance in the society.
The panel noted that less than 50 years ago journalism was a male-dominated profession. Today the majority of journalism students are female. However, there is still a great deal of subtle discrimination, particularly in selection for management positions. While female journalists compose at least half of the staff in many newsrooms, women are not represented in management.
Gender also figures into story assignments. Men cover politics and sports, and female journalists may have all the other stories. Few women are sent out on special reports, especially when there is an ‘envelope’ involved. Some women said they were denied access to training opportunities and that the editors prefer to send men. Women need to balance family responsibility and work (as in most professions), and issues of fear, inadequacy and workplace politics and intrigue also play a role. Women were often concerned about working late hours with little security available to and from their workplace. Sexual harassment was not widespread but does occur.
The panel encouraged the female participants in the following areas:
1) To be more assertive. They should do what they think is right. For example, they can focus on covering violence against women. They should put themselves at the forefront!
2) To acquire experience in hard-news coverage.
3) To be meticulous about their assignments, a practice that will usually generate other assignments
4) To study and prove that they are well educated and prepared.
5) To be assertive, cooperative and professional.
6) To not let preconceptions dominate their reporting.
According to Chi Cho, the participants appreciated the seminar because it was the first time Christian journalists in the country had an opportunity to get together to discuss issues of mutual interest. Having an international speaker added value and made the event more credible and serious. It was also an opportunity for most of the participants to discover fellow Christians in the journalist corps.
After that seminar, almost everyone requested the formation and registry of a formal organisation so that all future meetings would be within a legal framework with proper recognition and respect.
But Chi decided to start with smaller group meetings emphasizing a spiritual foundation for the journalists in mainstream media. Some participants working in mainstream media have met twice to fellowship and encourage each other to strengthen their prayer life at work.
For the future, Chi Ernest Cho wants to pursue the idea of having a registered association of Christian journalists in Cameroon, including both those working in mainstream and Christian media organisations to ensure a stronger influence both on its members and society.