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Samuel Wazizi’s death: Freedom of speech remains a Western ideal

My friend recently summarised the case of journalist Samuel Wazizi’s murder in simple terms: “Imagine if Donald Trump arrested Trevor Noah and had him executed without trial. People would go insane”.

We shouldn’t have to make relatable first world comparisons for people to understand the gravity of the human rights violations occurring in developing countries. However, while both international and social media voraciously investigate and ‘cancel’ the past and present ignorance of Western politicians and celebrities, the same outlets are at near radio silence about the atrocities being committed and ignored in Cameroon. 

Wazizi’s arrest 

Samuel Wazizi’s murder at the hands of the government is one of these many atrocities. The journalist, whose real name was Samuel Ajiekha Abuwe, was also a popular news anchor and host of the Halla ya Matta show (Shout out your Problem) on a local broadcasting station in Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region of Cameroon. The region has been heavily involved in Cameroon’s ongoing Anglophone separatist crisis, which has seen approximately 3000 people killed and forced over half a million people to flee from their homes in just three years. 

It was on the 2nd of August 2019, while the tensions between government forces and separatists were on an exponential rise, that Wazizi was suddenly arrested and detained by the police. He was accused of “speaking critically on the air about the authorities and their handling of the crisis”, according to media watchdog and denied bail due to the country’s anti-terrorism laws. 

The military has since claimed that Wazizi was involved in coordinating logistics for separatist fighters. Their statement did not include specific examples of Wazizi’s work that led to his arrest. Still, there is speculation that a program run by Wazizi in May 2019, which included the testimony of a woman accusing government soldiers of killing her 4-month-old daughter during an attack, which the government then denied, may have brought him to the attention of authorities. His family and lawyers have since vehemently denied claims of Wazizi’s separatist involvements and stated that he was simply doing his job as a journalist. 

Wazizi’s death

After his arrest, Wazizi’s lawyers claim that authorities notified them that his case would be handed over to the judicial police. Instead, five days later, on the 7th of August, Wazizi was moved from the police station to army headquarters at the 21st Motorised Infantry Battalion, after which no contact was allowed, and no information was provided on Wazizi for ten months. Despite his lawyers filing Habeus Corpus documents calling for their client to be physically presented to the court, their requests were rejected and ignored. His lawyers were in court when they found out that their client had already been dead for ten months. 

On the 2nd of June 2020, private broadcaster Equinoxe TV provided Wazizi’s family with the first information of his whereabouts since his arrest. The news report claimed that it had heard from a reliable military source that Wazizi had died in custody. 

The army’s statement 

On the 5th of June 2020, the government finally released a statement that was littered with ‘facts’ that contradicted the claims of his family and witnesses at the time of Wazizi’s arrest. The statement announced that the journalist had died in custody after suffering from “severe sepsis”. It also claimed that Wazizi had remained in close contact with his family throughout his detainment and that his family were immediately informed following his death. Wazizi’s family have since denied these claims, stating that the first time they had heard from Wazizi following his arrest was in the Equinoxe TV report. The RSF (Reporters Without Borders) are campaigning for an inquiry into his death as his body has still not been returned to his family. 

Persecution of free speech 

Media watchdog calls Samuel Wazizi’s death in detention “the worst crime against a journalist in the past ten years in Cameroon”. However, he is not the only journalist to suffer a criminal injustice at the hands of the Cameroonian government. In April 2010, Cameroun Express editor Ngota Ngota Germain also died in police custody, after having been arrested along with three other journalists for falsifying a government document. Ngota had, at the time, been investigating an allegation of corruption within a state-run oil company. The official government statement claimed that Ngota had died from “HIV-related opportunistic infections”. His family believes that the journalist, who suffered from asthma and hypertension, died of medical neglect. 

Journalist Amadou Vamoulké, the former head of Cameroon’s state radio and TV broadcaster CRTV, is 70 years and has been held in detention for four years in prison with a confirmed case of coronavirus infection. RSF claims that there is “no legal basis” for his detention. Furthermore, Vamoulké has been put through a drawn-out trial of 30 hearings, of which none has produced any material evidence to support these charges. 

Cameroon doesn’t only have a freedom of speech problem. It has an ongoing and bloody human rights problem that has seen whole towns wiped out by government forces. However, a state-controlled media where journalists are either killed or threatened into silence means that the government has full autonomy, never to face the consequences for their actions. The crisis in Cameroon draws strong parallels to the Gwangju Massacre in Korea of 1980 where oppressively state-controlled media ensured that even people in neighbouring cities were left unaware that a whole city had been fired upon by government troops for peacefully protesting for democracy. Even today, there is no official number for the casualties of the massacre. Looking back on my own country’s history reminds me that it is never enough to rely on mainstream media and government platforms to deliver information and censure wrongdoings when individual countries fail to do so. Western economic interests in Cameroon’s natural resources have no doubt played a part in their negligence to speak up against the Cameroonian government. The international media should no longer continue to ignore the grievous human rights violations going on in Cameroon if they truly stand for universal freedom of press and speech.