By Dibussi Tande
In the Part 1 of this posting, we highlighted the fact that the Biya regime has never viewed the Cameroonian cyberspace as a viable space for civic engagement and public discourse, and instead sees it as a threat to the regime – a space that must be controlled, co-opted, contained, or simply coerced into submission.
In this second part, we continue with more 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.
July 2008 – Extending the Reach of Cameroon’s Repressive Media Law to Cyberspace
It is within the context of the Biya regime’s displeasure with Diaspora activists that Albert Mbida, a high ranking official of the Ministry of Communications, echoed Fame Ndongo’s 2004 declaration by making the case for extending the reach of Cameroon’s often criticized 1990 media law, which criminalizes of press offenses, well beyond Cameroon’s borders and into the virtual public sphere.
Mbida argued that Section 74 of the law – which stipulates that newspaper publishers, editors, authors and printers, along with station managers, editors, and managers of recording or broadcast companies are liable for any material deemed libelous that appears in their respective medium – was applicable to Cameroonian websites and social networks. According to him, in the event where the author of an Internet article cannot be identified, the service provider or owner of the website or blog would be criminally liable – a position which if enforceable, would have had a chilling effect on online discourse among Cameroonians. Fortunately, this was one law that the government could not possible enforce, and even Mr. Mbida conceded as much.
Nonetheless, this declaration, which went largely unnoticed, was an early pointer to how the government intended, or at least hoped, to regulate what Cameroonians at home and abroad discussed on the Internet.
July 2009 – Issa Tchiroma: "Cameroonian Activists Abroad are Cyber-terrorists"
Without doubt, no one within the Biya regime has been more determined than Minister Issa Tchiroma to control political discourse within the Cameroonian Diaspora community and in cyberspace. In fact, demonizing Cameroon’s Diaspora and muzzling the Internet has become Tchiroma’s leitmotiv.
No surprise therefore, when he raised quite a storm during a July 26, 2009 radio interview by declaring that “The government [of Cameroon] was the victim of cyber-terrorism“ simply because Cameroonians in France had used social media to announce anti-government protests during President Biya’s July 2009 visit to that country.
That this exercise of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly by Cameroonians in the Diaspora would be likened to terrorism was a stretch even for this minister notorious for his verbal flights of fancy. Cyber-terrorism has never been about online speech but refers specifically to “unlawful attacks and threats of attack against computers, networks, and the information stored therein when done to intimidate or coerce a government or its people in furtherance of political or social objectives”. [source]
This minor detail has however not deterred the Minister and his supporters who still insist that the July 2009 events were an act of terrorism, arguing that the actions of Cameroon ian activists was “a premeditated and politically motivated attack against information and information systems orchestrated by clandestine agents of the Diaspora” – a claim even more ridiculous than Tchiroma’s which only goes to highlight the regime’s antipathy towards the Diaspora community . [See Fustel MEKONGO BALLA Le fournisseur de services de telecommunications CAMTEL et la cybercriminalite face au Droit]
November 2009 – Time to Control the Flow of Internet Traffic
The Government’s impulses to control and monitor the Internet were again on display in November 2009 when Biyiti Bi Essam, the Minister of Post and Telecommunications, announced a project to control and monitor incoming and outgoing internet traffic on grounds that the free flow of information on the Internet was a security threat to the state, businesses and users. The government even made a call for tender for a “strategic partner” that would assist it in carrying out the project.
June 20010 – Tchiroma's Frontal Attack on the Diaspora Community
Issa Tchiroma was at it again in June 2010 while in France to attend the 45th Franco-African Summit with the President. As usual, Cameroonian activists seized this opportunity to organize anti-government demonstrations, and as usual, they were vilified by the regime Spokesperson in a TV interview:
“Diaspora activists have embarked on a systematic campaign of denigration and calumny against the nation... spreading rumor and fantasy... this Diaspora frightens... Every time that an online media, a radio station or TV network talks about Cameroon it is always in negative terms simply because Cameroonians, particularly Cameroonians in the Diaspora, no longer love their country... This Diaspora distracts with its excessive and false speech, which is detrimental to honor and hope…”
June 2010 – Bill Against Cyber-criminality
The Biya regime’s complaints about the alleged excesses of cyber-activists culminated in June 2010 the submission of a controversial cyber-crimes and cyber-security bill to Parliament which had been a decade in the making.
The bill tackled a variety of issues such as the spread of pedophilia, child cyber pornography, and banking system intrusion, but also devoted a substantial portion to cracking down on, and formally criminalizing online speech or “the spread of false rumors” to quote from the bill’s explanatory statement.
Initially adopted in July 2010, the bill was sent back for a second reading during the December 2010 parliamentary session. The final version of the bill, which was signed into law on December 21, 2010 (LAW N° 2010/012 OF 21 December, 2010 Relating to Cybersecurity and Cybercriminality in Cameroon), was essentially a reprise of the July version with all key provisions, including the one on online speech, unchanged.
First, the December 21, 2010 law holds liable, “persons in charge, even gratuitously” for the content “of the storage of signals, written material, images, sound or messages of any nature supplied by the users of such services” (Section 34). In other words, Internet services Providers, web hosting firms, etc. are criminally liable for the material that are on their servers.
Secondly, it targets the authors of online content:
“Section 78 (1) Whoever uses electronic communications or an information system to design, to publish or propagate a piece of information without being able to attest its veracity or prove that the said piece of information was true shall be punished with imprisonment for from 06 (six) months to 02 (two) years or a fine of from 5,000,000 (five million) to 10,000,000 (ten million) CFA francs or both of such fine and imprisonment.
(2) The penalties provided for in Subsection 1 above shall be doubled where the offence is committed with the aim of disturbing public peace.”
Thus Cameroon now has a law that criminalizes online speech. Regarding the issue of enforcement, the law states that in cases where offenders reside abroad, they will be prosecuted via “international and mutual assistance.” According to Section 91:
“Unless otherwise provided for by an international convention to which Cameroon is signatory, requests for judicial assistance from Cameroonian judicial officers to foreign judicial officers shall be sent through the Ministry in charge of External Relations.
Enforcement documents shall be sent to the authorities of the requesting State through the same channel.”
To proponents of the criminalization of online speech, the cybercrimes bill is the culmination of a long and hard fought battle to silence or at least take on digital subversives. However, the issue of international enforcement still looms large as it is unlikely that Cameroonians abroad who run afoul of Article 78 will be handed over to Cameroonian authorities, or be prosecuted by countries where freedom of speech is sacrosanct.
March 2010 – Extending the Reach of Cameroon’s Intelligence Services
On March 31, 2010, Parliament adopted two bills which authorize the President of the Republic to legislate by ordinance on matters concerning Cameroon’s intelligence services. These bills give the president far ranging powers over intelligence matters, including the authority to bypass the National Assembly on intelligence activities that would normally require legislative or judicial approval.
The first bill extends the reach of intelligence services beyond Cameroon’s borders because “intelligence gathering tasks are increasingly dangerous due to complex threats and risks of the modern world.” It also provides the additional security to intelligence agents who are required to “look for information, wherever it is found, even at the risk of their lives.” The second bill addresses threats stemming from the "rapid development of new technologies easily accessible to criminals and groups nurturing malevolent and aggressive projects against state security and the vital interests of the nation.”
Like the cybersecurity law which seems harmless first glance, these intelligence bills contain provisions which give intelligence officers the free hand to penetrate, disrupt and hound Cameroonian “subversive” and “cyber-terrorists” cycles abroad, which the regime believes are threatening the state.
Repression not development
Evidently, the Biya regime is not interested in laying the institutional or legal framework for the establishment of a viable virtual public sphere where the vitality of Cameroonian cyber-communities may be harnessed to develop a democratic ethos and promote democratic/transparent institutions that are answerable to the people. Instead, the regime is still immersed in that repressive culture whose primary goal is to control, co-opt, contain, or simply coerce into submission.