Cameroon Military Arresting, Trying, And Jailing Journalists On 'Fake News' Charges


Here in the United States, the term “fake news” is used (most prominently by the President) to declaim news stories the reader doesn’t like. It has little to do with whether or not the content is untruthful and almost everything to do with swinging public opinion against the press outlet and its reporting.

The term has become a handy tool for autocrats and authoritarians seeking to punish journalists and others who publish content they don’t like. The stakes in the United States are still low. Elsewhere in the world, real jail time is involved. If government officials don’t like their dirty deeds exposed or their policies questioned, they just turn to a handy new set of laws predicated on a term no one can define.

Daniel Funke at Poynter catches up on the story of Cameroonian journalist Akumbom Elvis McCarthy. McCarthy sent messages detailing brutal acts by law enforcement and the military, warning that the government treats reports of abusive behavior as “fake news.” His call-out of the government’s dismissive behavior towards its own problems was greeted with charges — and six months in jail — for disseminating “fake news.”

A military tribunal charged McCarthy, a journalist for private broadcaster Abakwa FM Radio, with attempted secession, disseminating secessionist propaganda and false news, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. For almost a month after his arrest March 20, he was kept in a small cell in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region of Cameroon.

He shared food, water and a toilet with about 30 other prisoners. He slept on the floor. He made a pillow out of plastic water bottles.

“My imprisonment experience was horrible. I spent almost a month on a floor,” he said. “I was persistently going though brutalization in police (custody). I still suffer from a toothache that was (beaten) by a security officer while I was in a police cell. No one was allowed to visit me.

Trailing only Egypt in the number of journalists jailed for fake news charges, Cameroon’s government is no one’s idea of democratic and fair. But the addition of fake news to the oppression toolkit has just given abusive governments one more way to abuse their citizens. Cameroon’s government has turned its military into a weapon deployed against its own citizens, and anyone questioning that — or pointing out the military’s brutal acts — is being purged from local media.

The head of English news at a private TV station in Cameroon, Mimi Mefo Takambou, was jailed on “fake news” charges. She was taken from the station by the military, which wanted to question her about reports of Cameroon soldiers killing a missionary, destroying houses, and slaughtering farm animals. She refused to answer their questions. With the military running both the tribunal and making the accusations, Takambou had zero chance of prevailing.

[Military prosecutors] deliberated for an hour, which became two hours, which turned into three hours. Finally, they told Mefo that she would be going to prison on pretrial detention — and they refused her bail.

All told, Takambou only spent four days in jail. But the military is getting the message across for the government, which has chosen to dismiss anything it doesn’t like with the term “fake news,” which is enforced by the military’s kangaroo courts. As she had pointed out in previous reports, the government claimed the military didn’t execute women and children despite there being video recordings of this happening.

Laws using ill-defined terms to govern speech are bad news for everyone but the governments enforcing them. The same holds true for similar legislation pushed in countries with more open minds towards free speech and not at the complete mercy of their militaries. Actual harm can still be done over fake news. Legislators need to steer away from the temptation to regulate something it can’t define.

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Comments on “Cameroon Military Arresting, Trying, And Jailing Journalists On 'Fake News' Charges”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot cannon?

Legislators need to steer away from the temptation to regulate something it can’t define.

Officially defining it would narrow the scope of what it could be used against, and make it clearer just who and what it’s aimed at, and if, as seems to be the case in nearly every instance I’ve seen, the point is to go after ‘news that I don’t like’, then that would be highly counter-productive.

If you plan on using it to silence people saying things you’d rather they didn’t, better by far(for the legislators/government anyway) to keep it ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ vague, allowing it to be used on a whim and making people all the more cautious in speaking, lest they ‘offend’ someone who accuses them of disseminating the dreaded ‘Fake News’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot cannon?

I detest Fox News, InfoWars and Brietbart with the power of a thousand suns… but I can’t think of a single or set of laws that can be used to outlaw the insane falsehoods they spit out… because it can always be twisted to delegitimize real reporting.

Closest thing I can think of is having full public paper trails for the finances of any organization that claims to be a “news” organization…. but even then I’m sure someone will follow up with a comment in how this can be used to attack legitimate news sources.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot cannon?

Oh I can think of one method that would all but neuter groups like that, with the added bonus that it would help in a lot of other areas too(though certain parties would disagree I’m sure), the problem is that it would very much be a long-term plan.

Teach, and implement encouragement of, critical thinking skills in the general populace.

Starting from early education and going on from there teach children/teens to question what they are told until provided with verifiable evidence to demonstrate the truth of a proposition/claim. Remove the stigma from the phrase ‘I don’t know’ so that children don’t feel the need to accept whatever they are presented with so that they have some explanation for something, instead allowing them to perform more extensive research to really understand the topic/claim and can make an informed decision.

If ‘news’ agencies faced people who responded to wild claims with [Citation Needed] on a regular basis rather than just accepting those claims at face value they’d quickly go under and/or lose all credibility and be seen as nothing more than pure entertainment, a source of a quick and easy laugh.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot cannon

School ain’t no place for thinking! It’s all dogma and rote regurgitation of "facts". If you don’t give the answer from the book, it’s wrong no matter how much work you show.

And even when the above isn’t an issue, you run into mathematicians who have forgotten (or were never taught) that although the math may be true, it might not be real. My algebra 2 teacher made that an early lesson.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot ca

What you describe is not the will of those who want to teach, rather it is the draconian bullshit from the administration who is put in charge of overseeing education – these people are political appointees and not usually among those who want to teach. In the US, this varies state to state and at the local levels within the state. Citizens can and do get involved, encourage change for the better, etc but it is an uphill battle that in many places seems to have been lost long ago. Parents have not yet been jailed for correcting the bad crap learned in school, for example the attempt to teach that the slaves came to the US looking for jobs. Many teachers are willing to buck the system in support of the students, they may not get a raise but at least they are not part of the scum and villainy.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapesho

Yeah, admin is most often the source of the problem. Some teachers have not yet gotten jaded enough to simply go with the flow, but too many are. I loved the teachers who actually taught. They would tell you when you’d have to give the “expected” answer so you could pass the standardized tests, but otherwise taught properly.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot cannon?

It has been shown that allot of the stuff happening in the USA started about the time they dropped the fairness act..

There are solutions, but Neither side wishes it to happen. they Both want to cover up/lie and do anything they wish in our government. Its a bunch of corp stooges taking over the whole nation.. Mostly based on money, and who pays them the most.

Which Tends to be fun, because the USA citizens pay them Top wages or close to it. Why is it we can show they are taking money, but we Cant/arnt prosecuting them..

I suggested long ago that a group should make a tag/button/.. to send to the BEST of our politicians.. A gift that can be taken away. Sent monthly/yearly/?? and SHOW who we can trust.

I think the people in this country have thrown their power away. WE had the ability to control them and they are now running amok.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot cannon?

It has been shown that allot of the stuff happening in the USA started about the time they dropped the fairness act.

We literally went to war with Spain because a bunch of journalists lied, the problems were around long before anyone even thought up the fairness doctrine…

Nate P Cilver says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Why use a BB gun when you can use a grapeshot ca

I was agreeing with you. All right wingers lie and liberals tell the truth. We need the government to silence those evil right wingers. The should be tattooed with their evil Maga tattoos and placed in reeducation camps where they can concentrate. It is what should be done to such undesirables who are the cause of all our problems.

Anonymous Coward says:

no surprise here, really. just about every country is doing the same sort of thing, simply because the higher echilon of people dont want what they are doing, who they are abusing, the dirty deals they are making to be transmitted around the world via the Internet, in the seconds that it takes! everyone of the elite, the rich, the famous, the powerful are doing the same thing and are being ably assisted by govts everywhere (who are also part and parcel of keeping their members out of the spotlight!) and by security services and courts. think back to when this started and the blame lies fairly and squarely at the door of the EU Court of Justice when it implemented the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ law! since then, the world has been jumping on the band wagon, turning the population into nothing other than slaves, at the mercy of these assholes. while a few can dictate what happens to the masses, the world is going to deteriorate until it becomes nothing!

Koby (profile) says:

Proposed definition

Fake news here in the U.S. is more than just news that you don’t like. For example, a few days ago there was the Buzzfeed hoax article which claimed that the Robert Mueller office had proof that President Trump instructed his staff to lie to investigators. This story recieved wall-to-wall coverage all day on 1-18-2019, with much pontification that the President would be impeached, until the Robert Mueller office itself sent a press release declaring that the article was not true.

You gotta admit, that’s some really fake news!

So I would propose Fake News to be news articles later disproven, whereby shoddy investition or the over-reliance on anonymous/unverifiable sources by reporters who should have known better led to the dissemination of information now known to be phony.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Proposed definition

That would be fine, if that’s how it was actually used. However, the term itself is actually being used now to refer to news that disagrees with what you believe, even if it is true.

If it’s a truly false story, there are already ways to address that don’t require any new laws that can be abused by governments to shut up speech they don’t like.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Proposed definition

However, the term itself is actually being used now to refer to news that disagrees with what you believe, even if it is true.

I interpret its current use more as "I don’t feel that this thing you’re reporting on is newsworthy, i.e. it’s not actually news. Therefore it’s "fake" news." They aren’t necessarily saying that it isn’t true, or that they disagree with it, just that it’s not worth talking about.

Of course, that definition is entirely subjective. For me, things like who the various members of the Kardashian clan are dating, or what dress Kate or Meghan wore today, are "fake" news.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Proposed definition

whereby shoddy investigation or the over-reliance on anonymous/unverifiable sources by reporters who should have known better

Ok, now please define "shoddy investigation", "over-reliance", "anonymous", "unverifiable", and "who should have known better."

Take note that the vast majority of, say, the MKUltra claims came from "anonymous" and "unverifiable" (by the dictionary definition) sources and explain clearly how other similar activity could be published under your proposed system, and how publishers without the financial resources of the NY Times could justify reporting on this type of information knowing that any mistake will destroy them. It would also be nice to include some idea of how much of the article must be disproven before penalties kick in, and (especially for numerical values) how different they have to be from the "real" value to be considered disproven. Considering history, you should also confirm how you intend to deal with articles that were "disproven" by new information, only for that new information to later be disproven itself.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Proposed definition

the Robert Mueller office itself sent a press release declaring that the article was not true

Here is what the statement from the Special Counsel’s office said:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.

Note that the statement says nothing about whether the article as a whole is “false” — only that certain details within the article are “not accurate”. The core of the story (Michael Cohen lied to Congress to help Donald Trump) could very well be true, whereas certain exact details (e.g., whether Trump personally directed Cohen to lie) could be inaccurate. Whether that is the case, however, is a fact known only by the Special Counsel’s office…and, presumably, Cohen and Trump.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Proposed definition

Every news story that claims that Israel is "occupying" "Palestine" is fake news. Israel allowed the Palestinians to return in 1994 in exchange for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. Some of us are old enough to remember this. The foreign "journalists" in Israel sit in their hotel rooms and wait for tips from the propaganda offices of terrorist organizations, then publish the pre-packaged stories under their own names and refuse to correct them.

The Palestinians are formally banned from the United States as a terrorist organization but no one is enforcing that law. Bush Jr. funded and armed them, and the Democrats elected several to Congress.

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