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Pius Njawe, Cameroon

World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)

Pius Njawe, editor in chief of the independent newspaper Le Messager, is Cameroon’s most beleaguered journalist and one of Africa’s most courageous fighters for press freedom. Since 1990, he has been arrested more than 30 times and has faced legal action on charges ranging from defaming the head of state to publishing false information. Copies of his publications, the weekly Le Messager and the satirical biweekly magazine Le Messager Popoli, have been banned and seized on numerous occasions. Le Messager has been censored and closed down, its office equipment confiscated and its young and dedicated staff arrested, fined or tortured in an effort by President Paul Biya to silence the critical voice of the country’s few independent papers.

Njawe was born on March 4, 1957. He worked for the weekly La Gazette and the daily Douala Express before founding Le Messager in 1979. At just 22 years of age, he was the youngest newspaper owner in Cameroon.

In November 1992, following the banning of Le Messager by the government and after receiving threats to his life, he was forced into exile. He launched a substitute paper, Le Messagère, in Benin. Although unofficially accused of crimes including gun running, sedition and dealing in drugs and counterfeit money, Njawe returned to Cameroon in February 1993 and promptly founded the Cameroon Organization for Press Freedom (Ocalip) the next month.
Njawe, also president of the Central Africa Press Editors’ Union and a member of the UNESCO Consultative Group on Press Freedom, has been imprisoned on three occasions. He was jailed for two months in 1995 for “abuse and slander” of the chief of police, and in 1996 he was sentenced to six months in jail for publishing an article and two cartoons in Le Messager Popoli insulting the president of the republic. After serving one month of his sentence, he was granted a provisional release. “This is part of the permanent harassment ... part of the pressure they have been attempting to exert on us since the foundation of Le Messager, to silence us,“ Njawe told reporters at the time. “However, as we have always said, a thousand trials will not silence us.”
Njawe was arrested again on Dec. 24, 1997, and sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 Central African francs (US$1,000), this time for “spreading false news” in an article entitled “Is the President Ill?” The article reported that Biya might have suffered a heart attack while watching a football match. Njawe’s sentence was later reduced on appeal to one year in prison and a 300,000 CFA franc fine. He was pardoned by presidential decree and released on Oct. 12, 1998, following months of pressure from local and international press freedom organizations.

During his 10-month imprisonment, Njawe shared a dungeon-like cell with more than 100 other prisoners, most of them convicted of robbery, murder and other felonies. His wife, who was late into pregnancy, was physically abused by a prison administrator on the occasions when she brought Njawe food and linen. She subsequently suffered a miscarriage. Writing by flashlight from Cell No. 15 in Douala State Prison, Njawe said: “I know I am paying for my stubbornness in my struggle for the past 18 years in Le Messager and [other] organizations to broaden democratic freedom in Cameroon and Africa. I’m paying for having preferred my independence to compromise.”