Pius Njawe, Founder of Cameroon’s First Independent Newspaper, Dies at 53
IPI Mourns the Untimely Passing of One of Its 60 ‘World Press Freedom Heroes’
Pius Njawe, the founder of Cameroon’s first independent newspaper and a tireless press freedom advocate, passed away on Monday afternoon as the result of a traffic accident. He was 53. The International Press Institute (IPI) joins Mr. Njawe’s family, friends and colleagues at Le Messager in mourning his tragic death.
Mr. Njawe died yesterday when a car in which he was travelling was struck by a lorry on a highway in Virginia, in the United States, killing him instantly. Mr. Njawe was in the United States to attend a meeting of the Cameroon Diaspora for Change (CAMDIAC).
“The African media has lost a truly courageous individual whose bravery in the face of government intimidation served as an inspiration for other journalists in similar circumstances across the continent,” said IPI Director David Dadge. “The International Press Institute expresses its deepest sympathies at this particularly difficult and sad time.”
The reaction of IPI’s members and friends, who knew and worked with Mr. Njawe for many years, was immediate and heartfelt:
“Pius was the quintessential torch bearer of the free press campaign not just in his native land but also in Africa,” said Wangethi Mwangi, a consultant at the Kenyan Nation Media Group and an IPI board member. “Pius Njawe will leave an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of all those who struggle to make the world a better place for all of us.”
Vietnamese IPI World Press Freedom Hero Doan Viet Hoat noted: “He always makes others feel joyful, self-confident and full of energy … I believe we all have lost an international life-long defender of press freedom.”
Last year, Mr. Njawe’s newspaper Le Messager celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, to great fanfare not just in Cameroon, but across the whole of Africa. Mr. Njawe founded Le Messager when he was only 22 years old, “just to be in accordance with my conviction about the social function of the journalist,” he told IPI a month before his death.
Throughout his career, his pursuit of the truth would land him in trouble with the Cameroon authorities; he was arrested 126 times.
Mr. Njawe was forced out of Cameroon in 1992 after receiving death threats, but promptly set up a new newspaper, Le Messagere, in his temporary home in Benin. Upon his return to Cameroon the following year, Mr. Njawe founded the Cameroon Organization for Press Freedom (OCALIP).
He was imprisoned three times. In 1995, Mr. Njawe and a colleague from Le Messager were given two-month deferred sentences and fined for “abuse and slander” of Cameroonian police chief Jean Fochive, because they exposed the force’s massive misuse of funds.
Mr. Njawe was back in jail one year later, this time because his satirical magazine, Le Messager Popoli, had published two cartoons and an article deemed insulting to the President and the National Assembly. He was released after a month.
Mr. Njawe was locked up for a third time in December 1997 after he reported that President Paul Biya had suffered a medical emergency during a football match. In January 1998, he was sentenced to two years in prison for “spreading false information.” He had meanwhile learned that his wife, Jane, had miscarried as a result of the abuse she suffered at the hands of prison guards while coming to visit her husband.
IPI Fellow Raymond Louw recalls meeting Mr. Njawe during one of his appeals hearings during that case. “He cheerfully disregarded the formality of the court proceedings droning around us and shook my hand as I leaned over the dock from the crowded public gallery and handed him a copy of the plea,” wrote Mr. Louw. “On the many occasions I met with him afterwards he showed the same unflinching courage in defence of press freedom accompanied by that boisterous sense of humour that always singled him out in company.”
Following international pressure, President Biya released Mr. Njawe from prison. He had served 10 months of his sentence.
Tragedy struck in 2002 when Mr. Njawe’s beloved wife, Jane, was killed, also in a car accident, on her way from the Cameroonian capital Yaounde to their home in Douala. She was 42. In a sadly ironic twist, her early death prompted Mr. Njawe to found Jane and Justice, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving road safety in Cameroon.
Mr. Njawe’s unwavering efforts earned him several international press freedom awards, including the WAN Golden Pen of Freedom Award and the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. He was named an IPI World Press Freedom Hero in 2000.
“His very presence in a room made those around him want to enter with joy in the fray for press freedom,” wrote Ronald Koven of the World Press Freedom Committee, who helped translate and distribute letters from Mr. Njawe which were smuggled out of prison in 1998. “He was an example for journalists in Africa and everywhere of a man willing literally to risk his all to advance freedom of the press. He was a very big man in every sense of the word.”
Frederic Boungou, the editor in chief at Le Messager, had this to say of Mr. Njawe: “I retain of him the image of a man of conviction, a man of principle, a man who had convictions he was willing to defend. He was someone who had a vision for human society, someone who fought for justice for all, and who was also a great defender of freedom of the press and freedom in general.
“A heavy burden lies on the shoulders of the staff here at the newspaper. We are aware of that burden. Now we must continue the struggle he initiated.”
In an interview with IPI a month before he was killed, Pius Njawe said: “A word can be more powerful that a weapon and I believe that with the word … we can build a better world and make happier people. So, why give up while duty still calls? No one will silence me, except The Lord, before I achieve what I consider as a mission in my native country, in Africa and, why not, in the world.”
To read the full compilation of tributes to Pius Njawe, click here.
To see a timeline of Pius Njawe's life and career, click here.