By Dibussi Tande
Simply put, the Biya regime has never viewed Cameroonian cyberspace as a viable space for civic engagement and public discourse, instead, it sees it as a threat to the regime – a space that must either be controlled, co-opted, contained, or simply coerced into submission.
Why and how the Biya Regime is obsessed with controlling online speech and muzzling Diaspora political activism.
On February 22, 2011, Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon’s Minister of Communications and the Government Spokesperson organized a press conference in which he lashed out at Cameroonians in the Diaspora for using Facebook and Twitter to try and launch Egypt-type protests in Cameroon:
"They are quietly living abroad and it is easy to send messages through the Internet or Facebook, instigating people to demonstrate. If they are sincere, let them come back to the country and compete within the ambit of the law for political positions. Government is aware of the intoxication, and these same Cameroonians in the Diaspora have been disenfranchised because of their treacherous behavior... Cameroonian families would not allow their children to go to the streets to be massacred."
The Minister did not explain why citizens exercising their constitutionally-protected right of freedom of assembly and free speech would be “massacred” and by whom…
Barely three weeks later on March 8 2011, mobile phone operator, MTN, announced that it was suspending its Twitter via SMS service in Cameroon after the government demanded it to do so for reasons of “state security” [the service was restored 10 days later after widespread international outcry].
Although observers with only a passing interest in Cameroon were stunned by the virulence of the Minister’s declarations against the Cameroonian Diaspora and by the regime’s brazen attempt to stifle online speech with the Twitter ban, these were just the latest in a series of actions and statements targeting the Diaspora and the Internet going back nearly a decade. In fact, demonizing the Diaspora is a longstanding tradition of Cameroonian authorities beginning with the Ahidjo regime which made it a national hobby of lashing out at "anti- nationalists" and "subversives" abroad.
It is also no surprise that the Internet, which is the primary tool of communication among Cameroonian communities in the Diaspora and between Cameroonians in the Diaspora and Cameroonians at home, would become an area of focal concern for the government of Cameroon. Simply put, the Biya regime has never viewed Cameroonian cyberspace as a viable space for civic engagement and public discourse, instead, it sees it as a threat to the regime – a space that must be controlled, co-opted, contained, or simply coerced into submission.
Here are some landmark moments in the Biya regime’s decade-long attempts to control political discourse in the Diaspora and muzzle political activism on the Cameroonian virtual public sphere.
January 2003 – Government Creates Communication Centers in Diplomatic Missions
The first major institutional attempt to counter the “bad press” that the Biya regime was getting in the international media, supposedly due to the activities of the Cameroonian Diaspora, came in 2003 when the President created “Communication Centers” or “Communication services” in key Cameroonian diplomatic missions abroad that would provide rapid and on-the-spot responses to any information or activity that portrayed the regime in a negative light. Officially, the centers were responsible for:
- Permanently evaluating the image of Cameroon in the international media
- Implementing government communications strategy abroad
- Producing targeted publications for the international community and,
- Collecting, analyzing and preserving any information which may be exploited by the international media, or which may interest the Ministry of communications in accomplishing its mission
During the installation of the heads of the Communication Centers on March 27, 2003, the Minister of Communications, Jacques Fame Ndongo, likened them to “Roman gladiators, in the arena facing wild animals threatening their lives,” messengers who would used their “intellectual saber and… professional shield… to impose… the respect of the Cameroon label.”
It is worth noting that nearly a decade after their creation, these Communication Centers have failed to live up to expectations, and have done a shoddy job in “selling” the “Cameroon label” to the international community or dampening the anti-regime fervor of the Diaspora community.
June 2004 – Rumors of a Presidential Death in Geneva
The first major clash between the Biya regime and what we may term the Diaspora-dominated Cameroonian cyber-community occurred in June 2004 when a rumor broke out that President Biya had died during a visit to Geneva – a rumor which was allegedly concocted by a US-based website run by a Cameroonian exile, and propagated through Cameroonian online forums. According to Francis Nyamnjoh (in Africa's Media, Democracy and the Politics of Belonging, May 2005),
“The rumour, arguably the most widely disseminated ever in the history of the country, benefitted from a fascinating combination of the Internet, the cellphone, word of mouth and a popular hunger for democracy to spread far and wide, embarrassing a government unfamiliar with dealing with alternative media.”
Overtaken by the speed with which this information spread across the globe, the government was caught flat-footed and unable to respond until three days later when the Presidency finally issued a press release accusing “forces lurking in the shadows” on the Internet of attempting to destabilize the regime. The Minister of Communication chimed in, vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice:
“The Minister in charge of Communication is reminding communication professionals that the production and broadcasting of information on the Internet, just like every other form of social communication, shall abide by a national and international legal system, and that, to this effect, authors of messages, their editors, as well as their service providers, are fully answerable to the law, for any attack on the legitimate rights of the state and its citizens."
The Minister of Communication also instructed the Chief of the Communications Center in the Washington DC embassy to provide him with information required to begin judicial proceedings against African Independent, a website which allegedly started the rumor. Nothing ever became of this instruction…
[For details on the regime's mishandling of the 2004 rumor, see Christophe De Gaule's article titled « La gestion d’une rumeur : le cas du faux décès du chef de l’État du Cameroun » in Communication, Vol. 25/1]
The January 2008 “Food Riots”
The so-called “food riots” of 2008 (which were actually protests against constitutional tampering) were another landmark moment in the tumultuous relationship between the Biya regime and cyberspace as digital activists and bloggers used the Internet to provide a much-needed alternative narrative about the origins of the riots and the government’s handling of the riots.
A France24 report on the role of the blogosphere during the 2008 riots
As I wrote in the December 2010-March 2011 issue of the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine,
“Cameroonian Internet forums and chat rooms were replete with first hand – and damning – reports from the field about excessive police brutality and the rising number of casualties from trigger-happy security forces. Cameroonian online news sites and blogs, the majority of which operate from the Diaspora, aggregated this information from “citizen journalists” and provided a much needed context for these riots… Much of the information that was available online was then downloaded and printed in Internet cafes in Cameroon and widely distributed thereby largely making up for the private media which had either been banned such as Equinoxe Radio, Equinoxe TV, and Magic FM, or simply coerced into being only mildly critical of government activity.
The 2008 riots were a watershed moment marked the coming of age of the digital or online activism of Cameroon’s hitherto fragmented and largely unorganized Diaspora community particularly in the United States and Europe which now had an effective and affordable platform from which to sensitize, mobilize and organize itself while providing an alternative narrative about Cameroon, its system of government and its leaders.”
Expectedly, none of this impressed the Biya regime which viewed this Internet activism not as a contribution to a much needed national discussion about the origins and nature of the crisis, and on the possible way forward, but as a challenge to the government by “unpatriotic” Cameroonians abroad determined to tarnish Cameroon’s image.