On Friday, June 11, 2010, the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Buea University invited me to give a keynote address to budding journalists on the theme, “Fifty Years of Cameroon’s Independence: What Future for Media Practitioners?” This was on the occasion of that Department’s Open Day at the Open Commons of Buea University. This is, in substance, what I told them.
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to be here with you this morning. The refreshing air of Buea always stands in such sharp contrast to the sultry heat of Douala that, whenever I am here, I always wish I could stay forever. But, professional and family constraints dictate otherwise.I will like to thank your Department Head, Mr. Henry Muluh, and the officials of your student body, for inviting me to share with you my views on the future of journalism in our country against the background of the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of our dear Fatherland.
Addressing students on an occasion like this requires adequate preparation on the speaker’s part. So when I received your invitation, I did what I am sure your professors always urge you to do, that is, carry out research on the role journalism, specifically Anglophone journalism, has played in our country over the past fifty years to enable me predict what the future holds in store for its practitioners in this dear Triangle of ours. Unfortunately, I did not find much to go by, which tells me, dear students, that there is room for research here.
I am telling you this because of an important aspect of intellectual work which, time permitting – which I pray it does – we shall take a quick look at this morning. I am referring to the crucial issue of acknowledgement of sources and the avoidance of plagiarism as we ponder what type of journalism we should promote in our country over the next fifty years or more. I am, however, sad to say that plagiarism — that dreadful academic disease of stealing others’ views and parading them as if they were yours — has largely marred the practice of journalism in our country. I have a few telling examples for you later.
These preliminary remarks are meant to point out some of the limitations my discussion may present this day. That said, let me now briefly tell you how I intend to proceed. First of all, when we talk of the future of journalism, we naturally assume that there is a past and a present. In other words, what has been, what is and what will be. I will therefore naturally start with journalism in Cameroon in the colonial days, followed by journalism in independent Cameroon and then conclude with what I see as the future of journalism in our dear country, mindful, of course, that we now live in an era characterised by instant communication brought about by easy access to the Internet. As mentioned above, my emphasis is on Anglophone journalism, although I will make references to journalism in Francophone Cameroon as the need may arise.
1. Journalism in colonial Cameroon
The Catholic weekly, L’Effort camerounais, recently dedicated a special issue of its publication (May 2010) to the Catholic Church’s contribution to Cameroon’s independence over the past 50th years. In an article entitled “The Media and Cameroon’s Road to Independence and Reunification,” Grace Ongey dates the origin of the Catholic media in Cameroon to the early 1900s with the German missionaries, who circulated a paper called The Evangelical Newsletter printed in Stuttgart, Germany.
Before then, according to Ms. Ongey, Baptist missionaries, who were the first to arrive in Cameroon in the 19th century, were already publishing a paper in the Douala language entitled Mwendi Ma Musango. Protestant missionaries, for their part, published Elolombe Ya Cameroun and Mefoe, in the Douala language, around the same period.
She further indicates that in 1914, the German colonial administration began publishing Amtsblatt (The Official Gazette). However, the First World War of 1914-1918 interrupted missionary publications in Cameroon as the German missionaries of all confessions were expelled from the territory, which then came under the mandate of the League of Nations. The latter then split the country into two, entrusting the lion’s share to France, with Britain being contented with the smaller share, which it quickly attached to Nigeria, for easy administration. Under the British colonial administration, newspapers in circulation in Southern Cameroons were mainly from English-speaking Africa, notably Nigeria where the press then, as now, was relatively free of censorship.
2. Journalism in independent Cameroon.
After reunification with French-speaking Cameroon in 1961, Anglophone journalists began to gradually feel the censor’s iron fist that had always characterised journalistic expression under French colonial administration and later under the French-picked Ahidjo government east of the River Mungo. There, brutal censorship and repression were the order of the day. It was not rare for journalists, who dared to criticise the Ahidjo government, to be ruthlessly suppressed. A good example is the expulsion from Cameroon in the early 1960s of the French priest, Father Fertin, the Editor in Chief of the Catholic tabloid L’Effort camerounais, for his critical views of the high-handedness of the Ahidjo regime. Journalists are alive today – Celestin Lingo, for example – who spent several years of their young lives behind bars for their journalistic activities.
Throwing journalists behind bars – the lucky ones – or eliminating them altogether – the unfortunate ones – remain an unfortunate legacy Ahidjo bequeathed to his hand-picked successor, Paul Biya. Now, as then, repressive press laws are still enshrined in our statute books. The recent case of a journalist, Bibi Ngota, who died in Kondengui prison, is a testimony to the intolerance that still prevails around press freedom and practice in our country.
A crop of new journalists
The coastal town of Victoria was the hub of West Cameroonian journalism. There, before the reunification of the two parts of our country, newspapers thrived in all liberty, and journalists of renown, for the most part, self-trained and self-taught, and who had cut their journalistic tooth working for Nigerian papers, reigned supreme. Such names as Nchami, Augustine Ngalim (who rose from newspaper vendor to publisher of Cameroon Times), the Gwellem brothers and Tataw Obenson, to mention only a few, quickly became household names in the educated circles of the country. They produced newspapers of great vibrancy, thriving for a while in a censorship-free environment inherited from Nigeria.
I recall the legendary Tataw Obenson of Cameroon Outlookfame, who wrote a satirical column, entitled “Ako Aya”, in which he poked fun at people, especially those in authority. As was to be expected, he was in a direct collision course with Ahidjo’s repressive security machinery under the dreaded Jean Fochive. That collision was not long in coming. Obenson dared poke fun at Ahidjo for taking a helicopter from Yaounde to inaugurate the Kumba-Mamfe road that was just a dirt track. Obenson wondered out loud why anyone in their right mind would make so much fuss over a ‘poto-poto’ road. Ahidjo, not being someone who suffered such an affront lightly, showed Obenson who was really in power in the land. Unfortunately, Obenson did not live too long after his ordeal, and Anglophone journalism was orphaned forever with his passing.
In the 60s and early 70s, a crop of newly-trained journalists, fresh from Nigerian schools of journalism or from ESSIJY, Cameroon’s lone school of journalism based in Yaoundé, began to ‘invade’ the journalism scene in Cameroon. Names such as Paddy Mbawa, Julius Wamey, Eric Chinje, to name only a few, began to make their voices heard in the print, spoken and audiovisual media. However, the government still had a firm grip on the lid of the pot in which the people’s discontent simmered. Since the press anywhere in the world has always been the outlet for such discontent, the Biya regime used delaying tactics to hold back the “wind of change” that the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe had spun with such violence across the universe. Unable to hold down the lid much longer, the regime grudgingly enacted into law a bill on Social Communications (1990). It would, however, take another decade for newspapers, private radio and television stations to be given more breathing space in Cameroon’s media landscape.
A puff of fresh air
This so-called “liberalisation” of the media was saluted with much euphoria throughout the country, as can be seen from the number of newspapers that suddenly hit the stands. With the advent of multi-party politics in the late 90s, the media scene literally exploded with new publications. However, as Marilyn Green puts it, “only a few [of the numerous titles] can be considered serious publications. Some appear like desert flowers, flashing onto the horizon following a shower of political or individual cash patronage, and disappearing when the backing dries up” (cited in www.dibussi.com).
What characterised the media (written and spoken) at the time – and that is still largely the case today – is the partisan nature of the stand journalists take for or against a cause. Sensationalism occupies a substantial spot in most newspapers. To quote Marilyn Green again, “Stories are often sensational, unattributed and poorly written, with abundant misspellings and poor grammar”.
Unethical practices: The gombo phenomenon
Many publishers of the private press run their papers on shoestring budgets. For the four years I served as the general manger of the Catholic Media House (MACACOS), where nearly three quarters of the newspapers in circulation in Cameroon today are printed, I saw things that made my heart bleed for our press. It was not rare for newspaper publishers to literally go down on their knees before me, pleading for their newspapers to be printed on credit because they could not afford FCFA 100.000 for a few thousand copies. It was always the same story: “I have an advert that would be paid for once the newspaper hits the news stand”, or “There is an advert in that paper which I want on mine, then I would go ask the advert owner to pay me for running it for him,” etc. What a pity! And these are people with journalists waiting to be paid! And when journalists wait in vain for their “salary”, they resort to unethical journalistic practices, especially the now notorious ‘gombo’. With a few thousand FCFA, anyone can make a hungry journalist publish anything about anyone the payer likes, usually defamatory and unverified information.
I once received, under confidential cover, a letter from a director of a State corporation in Douala. In it, he strongly protested against a certain newspaper we printed that he thought was reflecting him poorly. When I later asked the publisher of the said newspaper what his problem was with the gentleman in question, as it was evident that he was too hard on him, he said something I found startling: “Lui, il refuse de subventionner mon journal et quand son rival politique le fait, pourquoi se plaint-il alors?” (He refuses to subsidise my paper but when his political rival does, why does he complain?). So misery drives many of our journalists to blackmail and corruption.
What is the solution?
There continues to be an out-cry from newspaper publishers for the government to step in and help them by easing their tax burden and granting them subventions that will enable them to pay their workers a decent wage. Will such subventions end what many see as the pauperisation of the Cameroonian journalist? No, I do not think so.
As someone who has worked in the printing press, and quite closely with the print media in Cameroon, I believe that government subventions should go to the printing press, not to newspaper publishers. Why? It is simply because newspapers cost too much in Cameroon. The cost discourages people from buying newspapers. However, if government were to ease taxes on newsprints, plates, ink and other accessories necessary for printing newspapers, the cost of printing such newspapers would drop considerably and the cost of purchasing a newspaper would also drop, and more Cameroonians would be encouraged to buy and read papers. That is not the case today because of the prohibitive cost of a newspaper – a 12-page tabloid costs FCFA 400! How many Cameroonians are willing to sacrifice such an amount for a newspaper? Not many, I am afraid. But, if the cost of a newspaper drops, many will buy and newspaper owners will make more money than they do now.
I once had a discussion with officials from some diplomatic missions in Cameroon who had precisely the same thought. They were looking at ways of helping printing presses to import newsprints and other printing accessories cheaply. They reasoned, and rightly so, that if newsprints, plates, ink and other accessories could be imported at a cheaper rate, the cost of newspapers in Cameroon would be like in Senegal, for example, where a 16-page tabloid is said to go for FCFA 100 – four times less costly than in Cameroon!
Our newspaper publishers depend on advertisements that are hardly available. Big businesses prefer to give adverts to the government-run media — Cameroon Tribune and CRTV — than to the private media. The reason is very simple: patrons of big businesses advertising in the government media expect a gentle back-rub from government when appropriate. On the other hand, the private media are viewed – rightly or wrongly – as being too allied for comfort with the opposition than to the ruling prince. That is not too good for business.
Mr. Chairman, my dear students, after all that I have said above, you must be wondering if there is any future at all for your profession in our country. There is no doubt that your profession faces, and will continue to face, great challenges. Some of them are completely beyond your circle of influence, and there is not much you can do about them. For example, what someone has described as “liberticide” laws, still stifle press freedom in our country. Until they are repealed from our statute books, our country will remain a graveyard for those journalists who choose to think outside the official box. Press murderers are still firmly entrenched in positions of power in our land, and they are not likely to release their grip on power – or on the media — anytime soon. Conditions beyond the media practitioners’ control are still stiflingly active in our land.
There are, however, conditions within your circle of influence, that is, those over which you have control and which you can use to make your profession worthwhile, pending the advent of a more tolerant media environment in our land. And that day will surely come. How can you prepare for that day?
One thing you must bear in mind, however, is that traditional journalism, as we have known and practised over the years, and as you are being taught at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Buea, is on its deathbed. It is agonising and those of you who are unable to read the writing on the wall are doomed. Here are some of the things I believe you must do to weather the storm that is bound to come soon.
Many have said it before me, the journalism of tomorrow will be a journalism of specialisation. Soon, general practitioners – what many of you are now being taught to be — will be out roaming the highway and no one will touch them even with a ten foot pole. I am exaggerating, no doubt, but not by much. Unless you show signs of competency in one aspect of life or another, you will hardly find employment in the world of tomorrow.
Take, for example, sports. If you are going to be a sports reporter, ensure that you specialise in one sporting activity or another. Do not be a jack of all sporting trades and a master of none. Take football that seems to fascinate every Cameroonian. If you are to be a football reporter, then you must study football very well. You must master the history of the game, know the players by name, by nationality and by club. You must have been listening to the commentaries from the BBC, RFI, or the South African TV channels during the recent World Cup in South Africa. Those journalists are experts in their fields. They report the games with a passion. Only those with a passion for a profession will survive.
If you choose the field of economics, ensure that you further your education in economics and become an expert economist in addition to being a good journalist. That way, people listen to you and take you seriously when you write on economic matters. If you choose to be a scientific journalist, you must enrol in a science degree program after your journalism studies. Then you will be writing in scientific papers or about scientific issues with the knowledge of a specialist in the field. Take the case of Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN. Not only is he an excellent journalist, he is also a medical doctor and therefore his reports on medical issues carry much conviction because they come from a specialist in the field.
I hereby challenge your department to make provisions for admitting those who already have degrees in other fields for journalism studies. Such individuals would graduate after a year or two as good journalists who already have a strong foothold in other areas of life. Those would make excellent specialised journalists in their fields of work. As long as your department continues to enrol only GCE A Level holders, it will continue to churn out what I call “general practitioners” in journalism; and I do not see much of a future for them in today’s competitive world.
Master information technology
Another group that is likely to survive the winnowing fork of the future are those individuals who are not afraid to master modern information and communication technology, notably the intricacies of the Internet. The advent of web blogs, those individual websites, fairly easy to set up and to manage, is a real threat to traditional journalism as we know it today. Anyone now armed with a mobile phone, equipped with a camera, can become a “journalist”. If they come across a news-making event, all they do is take pictures and post to their blog, or send to a news organ. See what CNN is doing these days with its IReport programme. That programme has taken the world by storm and is redefining the boundaries of journalism as we have never known them before. It shows us that journalism is no longer the preserve of those of you who have been to journalism schools. No. Anyone can now become a “journalist” these days.
Cameroon leads in blogging in Africa
The good news for Cameroonian journalism is that one of Africa’s best bloggers is a son of Buea, Tande Dibussi. He lives and works in the USA and has become a reference in blogging in Africa. He recently won an award in Durban, South Africa for his blog “Scribbles from the Den” and gave a keynote speech on that occasion. Thanks to Dibussi, and to another son of the soil, Dr. Emil Mondoa, both residing in the USA, many Cameroon writers and journalists, as well as a good number of newspapers in Anglophone Cameroon (The Post, L’Effort camerounais, etc,) now have blogs on cyberspace from where to reach out to the world.
As a journalist, you should no longer recline on your chair, your toes facing the sky, expecting your phone to ring for you to rush over and cover an event. Those days are over, and forever. You must constantly be on the alert, your camera at the ready at all times to rush out and cover a story. If not, someone who is not even trained in journalism, will beat you to it. The good news, though, is that even if someone beats you to a news-making event, you still can make capital out of it. How? By becoming someone with a sharp eye for critical news analysis. A news-worthy event has taken place and someone else has captured and posted it on their web blog but left it hanging precariously there. That is when a sensitive news analyst goes to work, giving readers the “news behind the news”, in clear succinct and concise language. That seems to me to be the kind of journalist whose name will likely linger on people’s lips and whose face the people will remember for a long time.
Avoid plagiarism like a plague
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I opened this discussion with the hope that time would permit us to talk, even briefly, about an unfortunate disease that is deadly to journalism, in particular, and to academia, as a whole. I am referring to plagiarism, the inexcusable crime of stealing someone else’s ideas and passing them around as if they were yours.
A friend of mine, who works for one UN body, commented on the recently released Cameroon’s census report in a private chat-group. Unfortunately, his views found their way into one of our local newspapers, which reproduced them as if our friend had written them for the said paper. As a senior official of his organisation, my friend was officially chided for making critical remarks about the sovereign actions of his home government, a member of the said organisation. He was strongly reminded that he was bound by his profession to seek official clearance to speak to the press. Nothing could be more unprofessional than for a paper to publish information made in a private medium as if it was given to one of its reporters.
Another example. Some years ago, a reporter stringing for L’Effort camerounais in Yaounde, sent us an interview purportedly granted our paper by a government minister on the occasion of the celebration of the Lake Nyos disaster. It looked great, and we quickly killed one of our lead stories to make room for the said interview on our front page. We were, however, greatly embarrassed when, a few days later, we received a call from the said minister’s office, asking to know when he had granted an interview to our paper. It turned out that our dear reporter had heard the minister’s interview on Radio Cameroon, had quickly taped it, transcribed it and forwarded it to us as if it was granted to him. The minister in question was gracious enough to accept our apologies. Needless to say we quickly parted ways with the reporter in question.
Let me conclude by reiterating what I have been saying so far about the future of your profession in this country. Specialising in a specific field will earn you a firm niche in the journalism world of tomorrow. Mastery of the modern tools of communication, notably the web blog, will place your name on the lips of many, not only here in Cameroon, but throughout the world, because the web makes you ‘visible’ to the whole world.
Another feature to take seriously is to build an extensive web of reliable contacts – “un carnet d’adresses bien fourni” – as the Francophone puts it. This will depend on whether your contacts trust you well enough to open up to you.
You will be deemed trustworthy only if you practise ethical journalism by refraining from plagiarism. Learn to give credit where credit is due. Steer clear of the journalism of insults and denigration that once characterised your profession in our country not too long ago. Avoid the facile temptation to resort to overt or covert mendacity by grovelling and crawling on your knees before political or economic patrons, for a fee. Be journalists who give a pride of place to accurate, honest, fair and objective reporting. That may be the only way you will easily navigate the shark-infested and turbulent waters of tomorrow’s world in which journalism, as we know it today, will be a thing of the past.
Douala, October 31, 2010