In a letter sent to the president of Cameroon today, Human Rights Watch welcomed his call to resolve the case of a wrongfully-imprisoned journalist.

Pius Njawe, of Le Messager, was convicted of "spreading false information" after he published an article raising the possibility that President Paul Biya had suffered heart trouble during his absence from a soccer match. Njawe has been in prison in Douala since his arrest on December 24, 1997. His January 13th sentence to two years and 500,000 CFA francs was reduced on April 14 by a court of appeal to one year and 300,000 CFA francs, but the court of appeal upheld his conviction.

"Cameroon has a history of repressing freedom of the press," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "The government of Cameroon must protect the right of Pius Njawe and all journalists to express themselves freely. We call for Mr. Njawe's immediate and unconditional release."

On Friday, May 29, 1998, authorities reportedly arrested Aimé Mathurin Moussi, editor of La Plume du Jour. Prior to this, fifteen journalists had been arrested in Cameroon during the past two years, according to the organization Reporters Sans Frontières. Three journalists were convicted of defamation within a few weeks of Njawe's sentencing in January. Some thirty cases have been brought against Le Messager since 1990, most of which were initiated by the government. The remaining cases were brought by individual government officials. To this, Mr. Njawe commented, "This looks like deliberate harassment, if not relentless persecution."

A copy of the letter follows.

June 2, 1998

H.E. President Paul Biya
Republic of Cameroon

Re: The imprisonment of Pius Njawe

Your Excellency:

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights organization, welcomes your May 5 call for a proper resolution of the case of Pius Njawe, editor of Le Messager newspaper in Cameroon, and asks that the Cameroonian government follow up with his immediate and unconditional release from prison.

Pius Njawe's conviction of "spreading false news" violated his internationally recognized right to freedom of expression. As you are aware, Mr. Njawe was charged, convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a 500,000 CFA franc fine after publishing an article which merely raised the possibility that you had suffered heart trouble during your absence from a football (soccer) match on December 21, 1997. He based his report on an investigation by his Le Messager staff and the statements of three witnesses of your alleged heart incident and made no conclusion on the veracity of their statements. Le Messager subsequently published the government's denial of your illness. In publishing the article, Mr. Njawe was simply exercising his right to impart information, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Cameroon is a party. The reduction of his sentence by a Douala appeals court is insufficient in correcting this unjust imprisonment.

In addition, Mr. Njawe has recently been denied his right to due process. The judgment handed down on April 14 by the court of appeal was not released until mid-May. This temporarily prevented Mr. Njawe from taking the case to the Supreme Court.

Finally, we are concerned for the health and safety of Mr. Njawe who has stated that he resides in an unsanitary and overcrowded cell occupied by more than 100 other prisoners, many of whom were convicted of violent crimes, has been threatened by prisoners, and has had difficulty accessing medical treatment.

Therefore, we call on the Cameroonian government to abide by international law by protecting the right of its citizens to express themselves freely, by ensuring due process, and by bringing prison conditions into line with international standards.

Respectfully,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director for Africa