Thursday, April 21, 2011
Cameroonian journalist Bibi Ngota died on April 22, 2010.
One year following his death, CJFE remembers Cameroonian journalist Ngota Ngota Germain Cyrille, a.k.a. Bibi Ngota. He died while in police custody at Kondengui prison in the capital city Yaoundé, Cameroon, on April 22, 2010. It was a needless, tragic death – and one that sent a chilling message to the Cameroonian media community.
Imprisoned for investigating on corruption
In early February 2010, Ngota, editor and founder of Cameroun Express
, was arrested and detained along with Serge Sabouang, publisher of La Nation
, Robert Mintya, editor of Le Devoir
, and journalist Simon Hervé Nko’o. They were arrested by Cameroon’s intelligence agency, the Directorate General for External Investigation (DGRE), and accused of possessing “documents compromising to key figures in the Republic.”
The document in question was acquired by the journalists in their investigation of corruption involving Secretary General of the President’s Office, Laurent Esso, and the state-run oil company National Hydrocarbons Company, where Esso is the board chairman. The document obtained by the journalists was a memo from Esso which included instructions on paying illegal “commissions” totalling 1.3 billion CFA francs to three company officials involved in the 2008 purchase of a luxury hotel ship. Esso claimed his signature was forged by the journalists in an attempt to discredit him.
Mintya and Ngota were interrogated for more than 12 hours by DGRE agents before they were released, while Sabouang and Nko’o were held incommunicado for a week without charge. DGRE agents subjected the journalists to psychological and physical torture in order to force them to reveal the sources of the Esso document. Nko’o went into hiding after his release. Mintya, Sabouang and Ngota were re-arrested, and on March 10, 2010, they were sent to Kondengui prison.
Held in Kondengui prison
Ngota’s health deteriorated rapidly while in prison. Repeated requests from family and friends for medical attention were ignored, including a written plea for his medical evacuation which had been endorsed by the prison doctor. During his time in custody, Ngota was twice admitted to the prison infirmary - first on April 5, and again on April 15 - where he remained in the infirmary until his death.
Ngota’s death certificate states that he died from “abandonment, improper care” and “failure to render assistance.” Cameroonian authorities have attempted to deny Ngota was treated improperly, or denied medical assistance. Prompted by international pressure, Cameroon’s President Biya opened an inquiry into the circumstances of Ngota’s death. The report, announced in September 2010, not surprisingly claimed there was no indication of mistreatment. Instead, it alleged that Ngota had tested positive for HIV and subsequently died from an infection. Ngota’s family maintains that he did not have HIV.
The inquiry results are widely considered to be an attempt to exonerate the government and discourage further questions into Ngota’s death. CJFE believes that Ngota died due to the appalling conditions in the prison and a lack of medical attention. In Kondengui prison, torture, starvation, detention in filthy cells, denials of medical attention and other cruel forms of dehumanizing treatments are reported to be routine occurrences.
Mintya and Sabouang remained in prison for nine months until they were released on November 24, 2010, by order of President Biya.
Ngota awarded CJFE’s International Press Freedom Award in 2010
At the CJFE Gala: A Night to Honour Fearless Reporting, held in Toronto on November 25, 2010, Ngota, Mintya and Sabouang were awarded one of two International Press Freedom Awards. The award is given to journalists who have shown great courage and have overcome enormous odds simply to produce the news. Ngota’s sister Thérèse Tchoubet and her husband Bosco Tchoubet accepted the award on behalf of all three journalists. Thérèse Tchoubet, speaking from Toronto said “We have CJFE to thank. Their recognition of the case contributed directly to the liberation of Serge and Robert. It is a victory.”
Unfortunately, the delayed recognition of the journalists’ innocence came too late for Bibi Ngota and his family. Cameroon has lost an important voice for free expression. Despite small improvements in some areas of press freedom, Cameroonian journalists who dare to investigate government corruption still remain targets of “over-zealous police and military, corrupt judges and score-settling between politicians,” according to a recent RSF report.
CJFE urges the Cameroonian government to strengthen its protection of journalists, and to ensure that no journalist is subjected to detention, harassment or physical abuse for conducting their work. Read CJFE's alert to the Cameroonian government here