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Cameroon

Executive Summary

Cameroon is a republic dominated by a strong presidency.  The country has a multiparty system of government, but the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) has remained in power since its creation in 1985.  In practice the president retains the power to control legislation.  On October 7, citizens reelected CPDM leader Paul Biya president, a position he has held since 1982.  The election was marked by irregularities, including intimidation of voters and representatives of candidates at polling sites, late posting of polling sites and voter lists, ballot stuffing, voters with multiple registrations, and alleged polling results manipulation.  On March 25, the country conducted the second senate elections in its history.  They were peaceful and considered generally free and fair.  In 2013 simultaneous legislative and municipal elections were held, and most observers considered them free and fair.  New legislative and municipal elections were expected to take place during the year; however, in consultation with the parliament and the constitutional council, President Biya extended the terms of office of parliamentarians and municipal councilors for 12 months, and general elections were expected to take place in fall 2019 or early 2020.

Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces, including police and gendarmerie.

The sociopolitical crisis that began in the Northwest and Southwest Regions in late 2016 over perceived marginalization developed into an armed conflict between government forces and separatist groups.  The conflict resulted in serious human rights violations and abuses by government forces and Anglophone separatists.

Human rights issues included arbitrary and unlawful killings by security forces as well as armed Anglophone separatists; forced disappearances by security forces, Boko Haram, and separatists; torture by security forces and Anglophone separatists; prolonged arbitrary detentions including of suspected Anglophone separatists by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; violence and harassment targeting journalists by government agents; periodic government restrictions on access to the internet; laws authorizing criminal libel; substantial interference with the right of peaceful assembly; refoulement of refugees and asylum seekers by the government; restrictions on political participation; violence against women, in part due to government inaction; unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers by Anglophone separatists, government-supported vigilance committees, and Boko Haram; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, and criminalization of consensual same-sex relations; child labor, including forced child labor; and violations of workers’ rights.

Although the government took some steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses in the security forces and in the public service, it did not often make public these proceedings, and some offenders, including serial offenders, continued to act with impunity.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right.

Freedom of Expression:  Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy.  Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals.  On several occasions the government used the law requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse, and many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty in obtaining approval to organize public gatherings.  The government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political meetings.

During the year the divisional officer for Yaounde V banned public conferences that Hilaire Kamga, an elections expert, intended to organize at Felydac Hotel on February 15 and June 13 to address the issues of voter registration and peaceful transition.  The divisional officer claimed the event was likely to disturb public order.

In September the senior divisional officer for Mfoundi, which encompasses the greater Yaounde area, pressured Hilton Hotel management to cancel a symposium entitled “Digital Rights and Elections in Cameroon,” organized by Paris-based Internet without Borders and Lagos-based Paradigm Initiative, days before it was to take place.  Eventually, organizers secured a different hotel without any difficulty.

On June 15, authorities prevented the opposition party, the Cameroon Renaissance

Movement (CRM), from presenting a documentary on presidential candidate Maurice Kamto.  The CRM booked Massago Hotel in Yaounde as the venue for the event.  Hotel management asked CRM leaders to leave the premises a few hours before the beginning of the documentary showing, allegedly following intimidation and threats from authorities.

Press and Media Freedom:  Independent media was active and expressed a wide variety of views, although there were restrictions especially on editorial independence, in part due to stated security concerns related to the fight against Boko Haram and the crisis in the two Anglophone regions.  Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters.  According to the 2018 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, authorities imposed a climate of fear and selfcensorship on media practitioners.  Journalists faced significant hurdles, some of which led to exorbitant fines, and in some cases, jail terms.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least seven journalists were in prison.  One was Thomas Awah Junior, who was arrested in Bamenda, Northwest Region, on January 2.  He wrote for the monthly Aghem Messenger magazine and was sentenced to 11 years in prison on May 25 for acts of terrorism against the nation, secession, revolution, and propagation of disinformation through digital means.  Awah Junior was incarcerated at Kondengui Central Prison in Yaounde.  Pictures of a severely emaciated Awah were widely circulated on social media in September.  At the end of September, he was transported to a hospital in Yaounde to be treated for tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Violence and Harassment:  Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists for their reporting.

As in the previous year, authorities arrested journalists in connection with their reporting on the Anglophone crisis.  According to reports by credible organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 20, police arrested Akumbom Elvis McCarthy, a news broadcaster for Abakwa FM Radio, a privately owned media outlet based in Bamenda, Northwest Region.  McCarthy was allegedly taking pictures of police harassing taxi drivers.  He reported in Pidgin English for the Media House, which also publishes news on its Facebook page.  Judicial police detained the news broadcaster for three weeks before referring him to the military tribunal.  The tribunal decided to remand McCarthy into custody for a renewable six-month period while police investigated claims that he reported separatist propaganda.

Censorship or Content Restrictions:  Based on a 1990 law on social communication, the Ministry of Communication requires editors to deposit two signed copies of their newspapers within two hours after publication.  Journalists and media outlets practiced self-censorship, especially if the National

Communication Council (NCC) had suspended them previously.  The NCC issued warnings and suspensions during the year.  It declared that radio and television broadcasts of political debates during the period of March 10-24 were suspended, alleging that such discussions might cause conflict ahead of the March 25 senate election.  It later clarified that this directive applied only to state-owned media outlets.  Magic FM, a private media outlet, decided to broadcast its Magic Attitude political discussion program.  Galaxy FM, another private media outlet, also continued broadcasting political discussion shows through its popular Frenchlanguage political program, Au Coeur de la Republique.

On March 15, the NCC issued eight separate decisions, warning or suspending journalists, media outlets, and programs for one to three months.  Most were sanctioned for publishing statements deemed unfounded and offensive, which was considered a breach of professional ethics in mass communication.  The media outlets included WB1 Radio, L’Orphelin, Horizon Plus, l’Essentiel du Cameroon, and Watch Dog Tribune.  In all cases the alleged breaches occurred in 2017.

Libel/Slander Laws:  Press freedom is further constrained by strict libel laws.  These laws authorize the government, at its discretion and the request of the plaintiff, to criminalize a civil libel suit or to initiate a criminal libel suit in cases of alleged libel against the president or other high government officials.  Such crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines.  The libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant.  The government contended libel laws were aimed at safeguarding citizens whose reputations could be permanently damaged by defamation.  There were no reports the government or public figures used laws against libel or slander to restrict public discussion during the year.

INTERNET FREEDOM

According to Internet World Stats (IWS), there were 6,128,422 Internet users in December 2017, representing penetration rates of 24.8 percent.  There are currently no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.  The government, however, has repeatedly disrupted access to the internet.

The country experienced its first internet shutdown in January 2017, after Anglophone teachers, lawyers, and students went on strike over alleged social bias in favor of Francophones.  The government issued a countrywide internet shutdown, which lasted 93 days.  Educational, financial, and health-care institutions as well as businesses that relied on internet access were stunted.  International bodies applied pressure to the government to restore internet access.  Despite internet access being restored in April 2017, there were continuing reports of network instability.

In October 2017 the government effected a second internet blockade, targeting social media and apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook.  This continued to affect the country economically, and many citizens were forced to travel back and forth to regions with internet access for business or information.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, state security informants reportedly continued to operate on university campuses.

There were a few reports of security personnel disrupting student extracurricular activities.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Although the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government often restricted this right.  The law requires organizers of public meetings,

demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies, nor does it authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it has not approved in advance.  Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assemblies.  The government often refused to grant permits for gatherings and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits.  Authorities typically cited “security concerns” as the basis for deciding to block assemblies.  The government also prevented civil society organizations and political parties from holding press conferences.  Police and gendarmes forcibly disrupted meetings and demonstrations of citizens, trade unions, and political activists throughout the year, arrested participants in unapproved protests, and blocked political leaders from attending protests.

On March 9, in Yaounde, police arrested approximately 20 women who participated in a rally, holding up a banner that read, “Stand Up for Cameroon.”  According to the organizers of the rally, including Edith Kabang Walla, the president of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP), the event was aimed to call attention to the deteriorating sociopolitical situation in the country.  Police released the women after keeping them for a few hours at the judicial police’s regional headquarters.

Authorities also banned some political rallies.  In April the divisional officer of Fokoue in Menoua Division, West Region, banned a meeting meant to encourage voter registration by the CRM opposition party.  The CRM claimed they notified the divisional officer that they were organizing an event on April 11.  This event would have been 10th in a series organized in conjunction with Elections Cameroon, the organization that oversees and administers elections, to encourage more persons to register to vote.  The divisional officer initially told CRM leaders the meeting might not be authorized because April 11 was a market day.  On April 9, he reportedly changed his mind and instead referred CRM’s leaders to the mayor, whom he said had control over the market place.  Organizers said they had contacted the mayor, who said she had planned to conduct a tax collection exercise in the market that day and turned down the request.  Further, in June the mayor of Bagangte banned a rally by the CRM at the local ceremonial ground and reportedly justified his decision by saying that the ceremonial ground was meant only for exceptional events and official ceremonies.  CRM officials said the ruling CPDM held a meeting at the venue a few days earlier.  Authorities also banned rallies by the CRM in Baham and Bandjoun in the West Region.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, but the law also limits this right.  On the recommendation of the senior divisional officer, the Ministry of Territorial Administration may suspend the activities of an association for three months on the grounds that the association is disrupting public order.  The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security.  National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the ministry, but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations and religious groups.  The law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association without ministry approval.  The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.

Conditions for recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced.  This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.

Unlike in 2017 the government did not ban any organizations during the year.  On July 18, however, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji unilaterally designated three political figures as spokespersons for three opposition political parties, disregarding these parties’ own hierarchies and internal elections.  The minister stated the three parties, the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP), the

Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC), and the African Movement for a New Independence and Democracy (Manidem), were suffering from persistent internal crises.  He urged administrative command officers nationwide to authorize only events organized by the appointees.  On July 20, all three appointed leaders joined 17 other nominally “opposition” leaders to rally with their parties behind President Biya for the October 7 presidential election.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.  President Biya and the majority CPDM party, however, exerted strong influence over key elements of the political process, including the judiciary and Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), the election organizing body.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections:  In the senate and presidential elections held during the year, the

CPDM garnered the majority of votes, except in the Northwest, where it lost to the Social Democratic Front (SDF).  The CPDM remained dominant in state institutions, partially due to strategic redrawing of voter districts, use of government resources for campaigning, interference with the right of opposition parties to organize and publicize views during electoral campaigns, and privileges associated with belonging to the ruling party.

The country conducted a presidential election on October 7, against the backdrop of protracted sociopolitical unrest in the two Anglophone regions and insecurity in the Far North due to attacks by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA.  Eight candidates took part in the election; a ninth dropped out just before election day to support a rival opposition candidate.  The election was marred by irregularities, including intimidation of voters and representatives of candidates at polling sites, late posting of polling sites and voter lists, ballot stuffing, voters with multiple registration, and a lack of transparency in the vote tallying process.  In the countdown to the election, government-sponsored media outlets CRTV and Cameroon Tribune produced three times as much programming for the president as for the other eight candidates; in addition the ruling party violated the electoral code by blanketing cities with larger than regulation-sized campaign posters.  While not illegal under law, government workers and financial resources were committed to supporting the incumbent’s campaign.  President Biya was re-elected with 71.28 percent of votes cast.

On March 25, the country held its second senate elections.  The ruling CPDM won 63 of the 70 elected seats, while the opposition SDF won seven elected seats.  The president, in accordance with the constitution, appointed an additional 30 senators, including 24 from the CPDM, two from the National Union for Democracy and Progress (UNDP), and one each from four other nominal opposition parties, including Union of the People of Cameroon (UPC), National Alliance for Democracy and Progress (ANDP), Movement for the Defense of the Republic

(MDR), and Cameroon National Salvation Front (FSNC).  Overall, seven political parties were represented in the senate.  The March 25 senate elections were considered peaceful and within the boundaries of the legal framework that heavily favors the ruling party.

In 2013 the country held simultaneous legislative and municipal elections, with 29 parties participating in the legislative elections and 35 in the municipal elections.  The CPDM won 148 of 180 parliamentary seats and 305 of 360 municipal council positions.  New legislative and municipal elections were expected during the year.  In July the parliament adopted, and the president promulgated, a law to extend the term of office of members of the National Assembly by one year.  On July 11, the president signed a decree extending the term of office of municipal councilors for 12 months, effective from October 15.

Political Parties and Political Participation:  As of September the country had 305 registered political parties.  Membership in the ruling political party conferred significant advantages, including in the allocation of key jobs in state-owned entities and the civil service.  The president appoints all ministers, including the prime minister, the governors of each of the 10 regions, and important lower-level members of the 58 regional administrative structures.  The president also appoints 30 of the 100 senators, and most of the appointees were from the ruling party.

Human rights organizations and opposition political actors considered the drawing of voter districts and distribution of parliamentary or municipal councilors’ seats unfair, stating that it is not fair to begin with and does not take changes in population into account.  Consequently, smaller districts sometimes were allocated more seats than more populated constituencies.  Managers of state-owned companies and other high-level government officials used corporate resources to campaign for candidates sponsored by the ruling party in both senate and presidential elections to the detriment of the other candidates.  Traditional rulers, who receive salaries from the government, openly declared their support for President Biya prior to the presidential election.  Further, authorities frequently sought excuses not to grant opposition parties permission to hold rallies and meetings, while the ruling CPDM held meetings at will.

Participation of Women and Minorities:  No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process.  The law provides that lists of candidates for legislative and municipal elections should take into account the sociological components of the constituency, including gender.  Cultural and other factors, however, reduced women’s political participation compared to that of men.

Women remained underrepresented at all levels of government.  Two women submitted their candidacy for the October 7 presidential election, but neither met the requirements.  Women occupied 26 of 374 council mayor positions; 81 of 280 parliamentary seats; 11 of 63 cabinet positions; and other senior level offices, including territorial command and security and defense positions.  With the voting age set at 20, youth older than age 18 and younger than 20 are not allowed to vote.  The minority Baka, a nomadic Pygmy people, were not represented in the senate, national assembly, or higher offices of government.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively and often used it to settle political scores.  The penal code identifies different offenses as corruption, including influence peddling, involvement in a prohibited employment, and nondeclaration of conflict of interest.  Reporting of corruption is encouraged through exempting whistleblowers from criminal proceedings.  Corruption in official examinations is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, fines up to two million CFA francs ($3,400), or both.  During the year the National Anti-Corruption Commission (CONAC) instituted a toll-free number to encourage citizens to denounce acts of corruption of which they were victims or witnesses.  In addition there were a number of organizations under a common platform known as the National Platform of Cameroonian Civil Society Organizations, which under the 2018 Finance Law was provided a budget of 150 million CFA francs ($255,000).  The funds were to permit the organization to monitor the implementation of projects by government entities to confirm that resources disbursed are used appropriately.  Nevertheless, corruption remained pervasive at all levels of government.  The judiciary was not always free to independently investigate and prosecute corruption cases.

Corruption:  The government continued Operation Sparrow Hawk, which was launched in 2006 to fight corruption, including embezzlement of public funds.  As in the previous year, the Special Criminal Court (SCC) opened new corruption cases and issued verdicts on some pending cases.  On May 4, the SCC placed Emmanuel Lebou, Hamadou Haman, and Aïssatou Boullo Bouba in pretrial detention at Yaounde Central Prison.  Authorities accused the three officials from the ministries of finance and communication of fraudulent manipulation of government payrolls, including payments of fictitious salaries and other allowances, which resulted in losses worth hundreds of millions of CFA francs (several thousand dollars).  In August the SCC delivered its verdict in the prosecution case against Doumana Louis Roger, the former transport delegate for the Northwest Region, and Ayafor Mefor Quita Fozo, a contractor with the Ministry of Transport.  They were under prosecution since 2016 for misappropriating fiscal revenues at the Northwest Regional Delegation of Transport in Bamenda.  The accused were sentenced to 15 and 10 years in prison, respectively, and were required to pay jointly more than 156 million CFA ($265,000) to the public treasury.

Financial Disclosure:  The constitution requires senior government officials, including members of the cabinet, to declare their assets, but a law passed to implement this provision had itself never been implemented.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published findings on human rights cases.  Overturning an earlier decision not to allow them back in the country, the government issued visas to allow Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch personnel to return to present their reports on human rights abuses to the government and to hear its views.  As in previous years, however, government officials impeded the effectiveness of many local human rights NGOs by harassing their members, limiting access to prisoners, refusing to share information, and threatening violence against NGO personnel.  Human rights defenders and activists received anonymous threats by telephone, text message, and email.  The government took no action to investigate or prevent such occurrences.  The government criticized reports from international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Crisis Group, accusing them of publishing baseless accusations with the intention of discrediting the government and military.  Despite these restrictions, numerous independent domestic human rights NGOs continued operations to the best of their ability, although many reported that government threats and intimidation limited their ability to operate in the country.

There were several reports of intimidation, threats, and attacks aimed at human rights activists, including members of the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC), Nouveaux Droits de l’Homme (NDH), the Mandela Center, and Front Line Fighters for Citizens’ Interests (FFCI), among others.  FFCI executive president Franklin Mowha was reported missing as of August 6 while he was on a business trip to the Southwest Region.  FFCI officials and Mowha’s family members alleged that authorities were informed but failed to investigate the case.  As of late October, his family members did not have any information concerning his whereabouts and feared he might have been killed.

Government Human Rights Bodies:  The National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms (NCHRF) is an independent, government-funded institution for consultation, monitoring, evaluation, dialogue, concerted action, promotion, and protection of human rights.  The NCHRF was established by a 1990 presidential decree and was subsequently given more powers following the passage of a 2004 law.  The NCHRF, however, is limited to making recommendations to competent authorities and can take no action itself.  The commission publishes yearly reports on the human rights environment and may engage in research, provide education, coordinate actions with NGOs, and visit prisons and detention sites.  NGOs, civil society, and the general population considered the NCHRF dedicated and effective, albeit inadequately resourced and with insufficient ability effectively to hold human rights violators to account.  Its budget was far smaller than that of most other agencies with comparable status, such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission and Election Cameroon.

The National Assembly’s Constitutional Laws, Human Rights and Freedoms, Justice, Legislation, Regulations, and Administration Committee was adequately resourced and reviewed the constitutionality of proposed legislation, but it was not an effective check on the ruling party’s initiatives.  The parliament generally failed to address the Anglophone crisis, resulting in a protest by opposition Social Democratic Front representatives during the March ordinary session of parliament.

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