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Monday, October 11, 2010
Global Toolbox

So long to a journalism guardian

By Bruce C. Swaffield

Not far from my house in Virginia Beach, the great Cameroon journalist Pius Njawe was killed. He died in a car accident as he was coming to this area to visit relatives.

Before July 12, I did not know much about Mr. Njawe’s background or accomplishments. Now, I will never forget him.

Below, in his own words, is the partial story of his many trials and ordeals. These excerpts, used by permission, were taken from “Never a Prisoner,” an article he wrote for the World Association of Newspapers in honor of World Press Freedom Day in 2006:

I have been a journalist since the age of 15. I started as an errand boy at a newspaper called Semences africaines, in the city of Yaoundé, Cameroon. Over the past 34 years, I have been arrested 126 times while carrying out my profession as a journalist. Physical and mental torture, death threats, the ransacking of my newsroom, etc., has often been my daily lot in a situation where repression and corruption, even within the press, have become the norm. ...

My longest detention lasted ten months. I was arrested on 24 December 1997 for daring to wonder about the President's health after he had experienced heart problems whilst watching the Cameroonian football cup final. On 13 January 1998 I was sentenced to 24 months in prison. Four months later, the sentence was reduced to 12 months under pressure from national and international public opinion. But that was not enough to remove the pressure, and after ten months, the President resigned himself to pardoning me, a pardon I had never asked for.

I have never felt like a prisoner when I have been behind bars. You can be in prison without being a prisoner; the real prisoners are those who imprison journalists whose only crime is to inform or to express an opinion. On the other hand, being deprived of your family, your colleagues and the people you love is a real ordeal; and the tears you cry say less about being behind bars than about the pain and suffering your absence causes on all sides. I used to shed my tears in the arms of Jane — my late wife — and my children, when I saw the suffering they had to endure to come and see me in prison, as if my absence from them was not enough for my persecutors. I could not stop myself from crying when Jane gave birth to a still-born child on 9 January 1998, four days before my trial, following beatings she received the previous day when she brought me food, by prison guards who did not even have pity on her late pregnancy. ...

The prison governor called me into his office one day to warn me that as a prisoner I did not have the right to write, and that my persistence would land me in solitary confinement. I immediately started to think about what my long days would be like in a cell I was sharing with more than 150 fellow detainees, almost all of them crooks, if I could not write. So I decided to defy the governor's ban by stepping up my bi-weekly column, "Le Bloc-notes du bagnard" (The Convict's Notebook), in my newspaper Le Messager. The chain of people I was bribing — including prison guards — to get my column out, was long; I have always wondered how I would have survived in that prison without writing.

During a lecture I once gave to students from a well-known university in New York, the director of the school of journalism made the following remark: "Mr. Njawe, my students and I appreciated your brilliant exposé of the situation regarding press freedom in Cameroon and in Africa in general. ... I am dying to ask you why you continue to work in the profession in the suicidal situation you describe?" It is indeed difficult to understand why people persist in a profession that causes them so much misery and suffering. As regards my own case, I invariably reply to everyone who wonders this, that I entered journalism the way you enter a religion; journalism is my religion. I believe in it, and a thousand trials, a thousand arrests, a thousand imprisonments and as many death threats will never make me change job. On the contrary, the harder it is, the more you have to believe in it and cling to it.

Even in the depths of a prison cell you can feel good about being a journalist. ... Journalists perform a social function, which gives them not immunity, but the right to look critically at the way a nation is being run. While playing this crucial role, it is important for them to be protected by the law, but also by the whole of society for which they work. Mobilization is therefore essential every time a journalist is thrown into prison, or threatened with arrest or death. Because every time a journalist is silenced, society loses one of its watchdogs.


Without a doubt, journalism has lost one of its most faithful and dedicated guardians.

Bruce C. Swaffield is a professor of graduate studies in journalism at Regent University in Virginia. Reach him at brucswa@regent.edu.

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