African Commission Rules against Cameroon in Radio Station Case
NEW YORK—The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has ordered the government of Cameroon to make an initial payment of $110,000 to the estate of Pius Njawé, the renowned journalist and publisher who was both a vigorous defender of the freedom of the press, and a bold critic of the country’s autocratic president, Paul Biya.
The Commission ordered the payment in a case dating back to 2002, when Njawé’s Le Messager Group tried to open a new current affairs radio station, Freedom FM, following the ending of Cameroon’s state monopoly on broadcast media.
After initially failing to respond to an application for a license, government officials seized Freedom FM’s equipment on the eve of its planned launch, and brought criminal charges against Njawé.
He responded by filing a complaint with the African Commission, represented by the Open Society Justice Initiative, arguing that the government’s arbitrary behavior breached his rights under the African Convention on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The two sides subsequently agreed a settlement that required the government both to issue the broadcasting license to Njawé, and to drop the charges against him. When the government continued to fail to issue the license as agreed, the proceedings before the Commission resumed.
In its ruling issued on September 18, 2019, the Commission concluded:
- that the licensing process was neither provided for by law, nor fair and transparent, and amounted to a violation of Article 9 of the African Charter (freedom of expression).
- that the facts presented were sufficient to conclude that there was politically-motivated discrimination at play in the licensing process, violating Article 2 (non-discrimination).
- that the decision to seal Freedom FM’s equipment was a breach of property rights guaranteed by Article 14.
In addition to the $110,000 payment for the value of the equipment seized by the government, the Commission said it would also order further compensatory payments to Njawé’s family, including legal fees and moral damages.
It also ordered the government to ensure that all broadcasting laws and practices are brought into conformity with Article 9 of the African Charter and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which requires there to be an effective public complaints procedure, protected against political, economic or any other undue interference.
James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said:
“This ruling is an important example of an independent judicial body standing up to vindicate principles that African states, including Cameroon, have publicly committed themselves to upholding, which many people in Cameroon fervently support, and which at least one man – the original plaintiff – gave much of his life for.”
Tragically, Njawé died in a road accident while visiting the United States in 2010, ending a dramatic career at the head of Cameroon’s first independent newspaper, Le Messager, which he founded in 1979. His willingness to criticize President Biya resulted in numerous arrests, while Le Messager frequently appeared with blank pages due to government censorship. In Njawé's obituary, the New York Times described him as "a symbol of opposition to the autocratic regime of Paul Biya."
President Biya, aged 86, is now Africa’s longest serving heard of state, in power since 1982.
Freedom FM v. Cameroon
This case concerns a current-affairs radio station that was denied a broadcasting license in Cameroon.