By Dominique Soguel
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Lilianne Nyatcha has withstood intimidation for her coverage of Cameroon's crackdown on political protests and harassment of the private press. She has also trained other women to test the boundaries and follow her lead.
(WOMENSENEWS)--For Lilianne Nyatcha a normal day starts with an 8:30 a.m. editorial meeting at Spectrum Television in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon.
But Feb. 25 was not normal.
Rising petrol and food prices sparked a strike in the transport sector. At the same time, a proposed constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits stirred citizen unrest. Local authorities were using water cannons and tear gas to dispel the crowds. The international press had reported at least four deaths due to a random round of riot police fire.
Nyatcha had left home a little early, with her camera switched on. Turning a corner, she ran into protesters at the cross light. Riot police flanked the sidewalks.
She snuck through the doorway of a store and continued shooting, discreetly, from inside.
"If I can avoid security forces, I will," she told Women's eNews in a phone interview from her home in Douala. "Cameroon is still in a state of siege. It really is an environment of terror. I get the impression that people are constantly under surveillance."
Although she was using a small, unobtrusive Panasonic video camera, Nyatcha did not go unnoticed. A man in military slacks barged into the store and demanded to see her press pass. He bared his gun. She flashed him her papers. Unsatisfied, he confiscated her camera as well as the handbag carrying her radio equipment, she said.
Nyatcha pressed on to Spectrum TV's studios, reloaded her bag with new equipment and returned to the streets. During three weeks of protests that flared into deadly, country-wide riots from the end of February to mid-March, Nyatcha was among at least 10 frontline journalists harassed for their coverage, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.
"We report the facts and that irritates the government," Denis Kwebo, a journalist for the leading French daily Mutations told Women's eNews. "The government used disproportionate force when dealing with strikes in the transport sector and that sparked wider riots in retaliation."
Cameroon's crackdown on demonstrators killed 40 people, according to the government, but human rights organizations claim the death toll exceeded 100.
In the media, most of the pressure fell on the private sector, which reported critical stories and events that state-owned media either skewed in the government's favor or ignored. In one week during February, police and military forces shut down Equinoxe TV and Radio in Douala and Magic FM in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital. They remain silent.
As a woman, Nyatcha stood out among those covering Douala's three days of protests, says Kwebo.
"Women journalists have a harder time adapting and integrating into riskier fields," he said. "They are not empowered, often relegated to lightweight sectors, like music, culture or sports. Not Nyatcha. She is a heavyweight fighter and an inspiration."
Nyatcha began in journalism by writing and editing for her high school newspaper, Mountain Echoes, in 1994. After graduation, she spent a few years contributing to different print media outlets before moving to broadcast journalism. She fell in love with political reporting during the 2004 presidential elections, when her work took her to nine out of the country's 10 provinces.
"I love finding and unraveling the nebulous," Nyatcha said. "There is no shortage of it in the political sphere."
Now, Nyatcha addresses political and economic issues in a weekly radio broadcast "SeptHebdo" on Spectrum Radio. She also covers daily news for Spectrum TV and periodically broadcasts for BBC Africa. Divorced, 34-year-old Nyatcha juggles two jobs and her two children, ages 8 and 6, with the help of her younger sister.
Two years ago she formed Journalistes d'Action et Femmes de Coeur, or Dynamic and Caring Female Journalists of Cameroon. It provides monthly meetings and professional support for female journalists. In addition to sharing sources, information and work tips, participants sometimes band together to help philanthropies.
"With our address books we can connect resources and bring heavier breadbaskets to the orphanages," says Nyatcha.
About 10 orphanages in Douala cater to HIV-positive orphans as well as children abandoned by parents who can't afford to feed them. A third of the population lives on less than $1 per day. The country's AIDS infection rate is 9 percent, according to official figures, but Nyatcha says many cases go unreported due to the stigma attached to being HIV-positive.
Dynamic and Caring Female Journalists of Cameroon now connects 75 women across five provinces. Based in Douala, it has recently opened bureaus in Yaounde, Douala and in the western city of Bafoussam.
"These women create a certain solidarity and that is very important in the current media environment," Judith Ravin, information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde, told Women's eNews. "They show that the media does have a role in society as a guardian of democracy and show that if the media is at risk, the public is at risk."
The U.S. Embassy tapped into Dynamic and Caring Female Journalists to hold three political journalism training seminars in Douala on Dec. 13, Yaounde on Jan. 7 and Bafoussam on March 14.
Nyatcha played the leading role in recruiting participants and key speakers.
Women hold 23 of Cameroon's 163-seat national assembly, but political reporting is still rare for women, says Nyatcha. She says female reporters face numerous difficulties. While skeptical male bosses and colleagues present one barrier, sources and subjects can also be problematic. "Sometimes politicians will proposition you instead of giving you information," she says.
Nonetheless, she tells female colleagues to be determined, to go out into the field and, above all, put in the hours. "If the national assembly closes at 2 a.m., then you have to stay until 2 a.m., until the doors are closed."
She also discourages women from becoming "Hilton reporters," or those who hang around hotels and provide favorable stories about political functions in exchange for kickbacks.
Maria-Colette Meffire, a news anchor at the private station Equinoxe Radio, shut down since Feb. 22, participated in two of the U.S. embassy's workshops on political journalism.
"Women are afraid to do political reporting because it is a lot of work," she said. "You need to know history and be constantly up-to-date. But you don't have to be afraid, just read a lot and stay informed."
Meffire, also a member of Dynamic and Caring Female Journalists of Cameroon, frequently raises politics in her broadcasts. She says she has received three anonymous, threatening phone calls for her coverage. On-air and off-air she denounces the president's efforts to change Cameroon's 1986 constitution so that he can stay in power.
Since the president's party has the majority in the national assembly, she says, overturning the two-term limitations enshrined in Cameroon's constitution will be easy for him.
Elections are in 2011. This gives female journalists considering political reporting time to prepare and develop new strategies to deal with the government, says Nyatcha.
"It is a challenge to get information from the government," says Nyatcha. "They suspect us of everything and nothing." And after the crackdown, she says, journalists remain worried for their personal safety and wary of the government. "We are going to need some time to trust each other again."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor.
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