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Crisis of Ethics and Credibility in Cameroon 

CameroonPostline.com — It is our sacred duty to critically examine media practice within our local context and provide a clear-sighted perspective regarding the way forward.

Sam Nuvala
 

December next year (2010) will mark the 20th year since the Cameroon National Assembly hurriedly passed a body of laws, pompously referred to by officialdom as Liberty Laws, spelling out the broad outlines of the freedom of association, freedom of movement, and the freedom of the press, among others.

The public began to witness the mushrooming of political parties, trade unions, and dozens of newspapers sprouting all over the place. This was subsequently followed by the liberalisation of the audiovisual media in the year 2000 and we have since witnessed the emergence of dozens of private radio and television stations as well as nonprofit community radio stations.
 

In terms of numbers, we can truly assert that the media landscape has undergone a revolution compared to the era of State monopoly over the main channels of mass communication. Many more voices can now be heard in the open market of ideas, even though a significant portion of the population can still be considered as voiceless for various reasons.
 

One would have imagined that, with this pluralism in media ownership, the autocratic regime of President Paul Biya, who wants to be remembered as the one who brought democracy to Cameroon, by his own volition, would, at least, demonstrate a greater responsiveness to the voice of the people and adjust Government policies in accordance with the expressed wishes of the people with regard to the electoral process, the fight against poverty, the respect of human and peoples’ rights and the right to a decent standard of living.

Far from it! The exercise of executive powers, according to him, ends with the conjuring of freedoms with the stroke of the pen, and any attempt to draw his attention to ensure the respect of those freedoms is an act of sheer ingratitude. Even though Cameroonians speak more freely today than in the previous Ahidjo regime, today’s ruling class has refused to fully respect its side of the bargain, that is: the social contract regarding the freedom of the press.
 

It has even refused to make a reality of the Right of Information which should allow pressmen and the public access to vital information of public interest. A glaring example of this refusal is the failure to make public the result of a population census conducted in 2005. Although censorship, or more precisely, prior restraint, was only scrapped from the statute books six years after the enactment of the so-called Liberty Laws, the issue of libel and defamation still remains a criminal offense and, unless libel is decriminalised, the task of exposing public authorities to public scrutiny remains an uphill task.
 

While it has been quite fashionable and easy to criticise the Government for complicating the duties of the media, the media and media practitioners themselves are not entirely blameless and have conveniently avoided the difficult task of critical self-examination in order to identify the bad and ugly side of their practice. The press is the watchdog of society and the question has always arisen as to who should watch over the watch-dog. By nature, the press or the news media do not lend themselves to any institution of oversight other than itself, while the public acts as the collective body that has power to grant or withdraw patronage.

The duty to safeguard the freedom of the press lies squarely on the shoulders of the press and media practitioners ought to realise that the protection and respect of press freedom is a sacred trust that has been placed on them by the public. In order to deserve this public trust, media practitioners have the duty to respect professional ethics, high professional standards and credibility. A media without ethics is a media without a heart and media without credibility is a media without a head.
 

The ethics of journalism enjoins practitioners to report news in a truthful, objective and fair manner. Truth, objectivity and fairness are the cardinal ethics of professional journalism. While it is very important to be truthful, the journalist must exercise care and strive to achieve balance and fairness.

It was John Dumoga, the Ghanaian journalist, who coined the maxim that “it is good to be truthful but better to be fair.” A casual glance at our papers today gives one the impression that the media have shoved ethics to the back burner in hot pursuit of financial reward, or what is generally referred to in Cameroon as ‘gombo’.

This ‘gombo’ journalism or "checkbook" journalism, as it is called elsewhere, has been shamelessly justified on grounds of pragmatism, survivalism and realism. Pragmatism may sound like a practical principle, but when pragmatism becomes unscrupulous, it is nothing short of brazen prostitution. A journalist has the right to earn a decent living from his works or stories especially if the publisher is the one paying for the stories.

But when the newsmaker starts paying for the stories, we have a situation where the tail is wagging the dog and as the saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune’. When the newsmaker or manipulator, spin doctor or agent of disinformation starts to call the tune, the journalist loses his independence and becomes a mindless tool in the hands of political jugglers, white collar robbers, cut throat artists and conmen.
 

On several occasions, I have read stuff in newspapers which gives me the creeps. Recently I read an article in The Post newspaper (a paper to which I have a special attachment) about the views of a certain faction of the Northwest Fons’ Union concerning one of their peers, Fon Chafah of Bangolan.

The views expressed gave the impression that His Royal Highness, Fon Chafah, was exploiting the Union for personal material gains, aimed at acquiring sumptuous palaces and luxury automobiles. I was quite dumbfounded to read a corrigendum in a subsequent edition of the paper stating that the views expressed by the detractors of Fon Chafah were unfounded.

The corrigendum even took the trouble to remind readers that Fon Chafah was a reputable Magistrate – Grade 3; a rather clumsy suggestion that, because he is a Magistrate Grade-3, he did not deserve the rather uncharitable image that was painted by some of his compeers. The corrigendum was signed by the editor, a title which is nowhere to be found on the imprint of the newspaper in question.

The Post has an executive editor, an editor-in-chief, desk editor, bureau chiefs and all what not, but no such position as editor. In which case, the signatory of that corrigendum can logically be considered anonymous. We have every reason not only to question the identity of "editor" but also to question the use or abuse of a corrigendum. A newspaper corrigendum is simply a short notice carried by a newspaper to rectify an error that might have inadvertently cropped up in a story that was published in a previous edition.

For example, a statement might have been inaccurately reported or attributed to the wrong person or some mix up of facts which needs to be rectified and is usually concluded with the apology; “We regret the error”. But when a corrigendum concludes with the observation that the statements made by so and so were completely unfounded, then, it is no longer a corrigendum.

It could be an indictment or a judgment, but not a corrigendum, and supposing that Fon Chafah had directly or indirectly caused the publication of the said corrigendum, the editors of the paper or any news media under the circumstances and irrespective of the attractiveness of any inducement, should have politely directed Fon Chafah to avail himself of the right of response by writing a rejoinder or a disclaimer. When a news organ starts playing the role of defence lawyer, then the tail has begun to wag the dog. The Post or any newspaper, for that matter, is not competent and is hardly expected to assume the role of counsel for the defence.
 

Media organs are run by people, human beings who may feel like taking a stand on serious issues of public interest. Of course, they have a right to do so, provided they take the pains to express their stand in a distinct space provided for that, but certainly not in the news columns. The editorial and opinion pages are meant for that.
 

Another circumstance in which I thought the English-speaking press was beginning to lose its professional bearings was the media hype surrounding the arrest and incarceration of Mr. Zaccheus Forjindam, former General Manager of the Shipyard and Engineering Corporation on allegation of embezzlement.

In as much as I condemn the violation of due process that attended his case, I cannot help being suspicious of some newspapers which have given the impression that the violation of the new Criminal Procedure Code, which is predicated on the Anglo-Saxon legal principle of habeas corpus, is singularly restricted to the Forjindam case.
The entire Cameroon populace is a victim of the violation of due process.

It is even more disturbing when Mr. Forjindam is being portrayed by certain press organs as a victim of Anglophone marginalisation or as an Anglophone martyr. It is simply ridiculous for the fact that Mr. Forjindam has never been known to espouse, let alone sympathise with the plight of the oppressed people of the Southern Cameroons to which he belongs. It is a widely known fact that he did not only court the favours of the oppressors of Southern Cameroonians but had demonstrated his ambition to carve a niche among the ruling class.
 

What is disturbing to the keen observer is that, several months before his arrest, Forjindam was copiously vilified in the independent media for strenuously advocating for a constitutional amendment that virtually consecrated President Paul Biya as Life President of Cameroun.
 

The same press that castigated him for promoting such a retrogressive political agenda turned out to be the very same press that, by the same miraculous twist of fate, began portraying him as a victim of the very same political system for which he had sold his conscience. In the two cases I have cited, we cannot fail to take note of the fact that we are dealing here with individuals who have had or still have access to a considerable amount of money, at least enough money to spread for image laundering.
 

Apart from the violation of ethics, there are other factors that erode the credibility of the press, such as laxity in the handling of facts, laxity in the respect of rules of grammar, deplorable spelling and poor choice of words. The credibility of a news organ depends largely on its standard of professionalism and authoritativeness. Achieving an acceptable professional standard depends largely on reporting truthfully, accurately and objectively.
 

Carelessness with facts is unacceptable and carelessness with language relegates the practitioner to the category of gutter journalism. And there is indeed a disturbing proliferation of gutter journalism as one notices the increasing amount of sleaze and filth that is reported in most of the English language news media.
 

The language in these media is far below standard and it is, indeed, an irony that whenever there is a general public outcry about the falling standards of English, the media noisily joins the chorus instead of seriously reflecting on the role they have played in bringing down these standards.
 

Most often, when one listens to or reads bylines by the new generation of media practitioners, you wonder whether they have ever bothered to read anything other than their own shoddy reports or whether they have ever bothered to listen to other reputable radio or TV stations. They are so full of themselves and believe that the mere fact of going on the air or scribbling some mumbo jumbo in a newspaper confers them the right to be called journalists.
 

Every journalist, worth his salt, should be conscious that at any given time that he writes or goes on the air, there are millions of people out there who are, by far, more knowledgeable than they are. Avoid talking over the heads of your betters and endeavour to exercise a certain amount of modesty and humility.

When you quit the microphone and retire to your favorite watering hole, you’re likely to receive undue accolades from fans who are eager to offer you a round of beer with such remarks, like “hey man, I heard you blasting, man that was wonderful!” and when you ask the fellow what he thinks about what you blasted, he blinks, scratches his head and mumbles something unintelligible.

He just cannot remember anything you said. Beware of gratuitous flattery. Avoid the tendency to think that because you go on the air or write stories in a paper, you have automatically become a star. Flattery is one of the deepest pitfalls a practitioner should guard against. It breeds complacency and mediocrity.
 

Avoid imitating the wrong things and picking up the wrong vocabulary such as the word “denizen” just because it sounds exotic. That word has been overused to the extent that one wonders whether the journalists using it even know its meaning. Another word that has been abused beyond recognition is “lady”.

A prostitute steps on stage, does an erotic routine, proceeds to shed her clothing and at the climax of her sleazy performance, the journalist writes “that the lady pulled off  her underpants, and exposed her what have you!”. You can’t help asking whether the journalist knows the definition of the word “Lady”. A lady is a highly respected woman in society who is held in high esteem, not just any strumpet who undresses in public to entice the men folk as a means of making a living.
 

Language is the substance and primary means of communications among human beings and every communicator, especially the journalist, must take the pains to learn to use and master it.
Another common habit among newspapermen and women is the frequent use of the phrase “in a chat with so and so, he revealed that…” This habit of gathering information by means of a chat betrays a certain casualness and informality which portrays the news media as being unserious.

In reality, a journalist might stumble on some vital piece of information during a chat but for heaven’s sake, spare your poor readers the impression that news gathering is a pedestrian process. It does not convey any sense of professionalism. You could simply state that Mr. X told The Post that such and such a thing took place.
 

If all along, you have noticed that most of my illustrations have been drawn from The Post newspaper, it is not because the other papers are any better. I have chosen The Post because I am attached to it and because I do not want it to be said that I am taking advantage of this forum to denigrate other rival newspapers. When I stated in the title of this presentation that there is a need for critical self-examination, I meant it.
 

The news media must subject itself to regular self-examination because as the Fourth Estate, entrusted with the difficult and thankless duty to act as the watchdog of society, the news media must establish a self-regulatory mechanism because, only a watchdog can watch out for itself.
In this light, I am humbly suggesting that the various media associations ought to put the issue of ethics high on their agenda.
 

First published in The Post print edition no 01395

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