After 15 hours of hearings that went through the night, the surreal trial ended at 6:30 a.m. yesterday when Bobiokono and Mbezele were given two-year suspended jail terms on charges of defamation and “insulting a state institution.” The court also ordered Bobiokono to pay 15,300 euros in damages and a fine of 3,800 euros. Mbezele was ordered to pay 2,300 euros in damages.
Throughout the overnight trial, the court systematically rejected the defence lawyer’s requests to be allowed to prove that that the two Kalara journalists had acted in good faith.
Officially, the trial was about two stories in October 2018 quoting what ruling party parliamentarian Faustine Fotso had said about a court case during a dinner party. Based on a recording made by one of the guests without her knowledge, Kalara reported Fotso’s description of the ploys she used to influence the judges’ decisions in a dispute between two politicians, a brother and sister, who were fighting over the legacy of their late father, onetime Prime Minister Salomon Tandeng Muna.
“This newspaper publisher was tried, convicted and given an extremely harsh sentence in a single night, as if he had just carried out a coup attempt, when in fact he was being prosecuted for alleged defamation more than a year ago,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk.“This summary trial and the extremely harsh sentences were designed solely to silence a respected journalist known for the quality and thoroughness of his investigative reporting, and to kill off his publication. We strongly condemn these methods, which are unworthy of a democracy, and we call for these sentences to be overturned because they have all the hallmarks of being politically motivated.”
A warrant was issued for the arrests of Bobiokono and Mbezele in the event of their failing to pay the damages and fines, but it has not as yet been carried out and they are still free.
This is not the first time that Fotso has sued a journalist. In 2017, she had Lewis Medjo, the publisher of the newspaper La Détente Libre, sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 1,500 euros for allegedly defaming her.
Kalara is often harassed in connection with its coverage of the alleged wrongdoings of well-known Cameroonian figures. Bobiokono told RSF that he is often the target of intimidation attempts, in some cases by government ministers.
Three weeks ago, Kalara published an open letter by Amadou Vamoulké, a journalist who is being subjected to judicial proceedings that are anything but summary. The former director-general of the state broadcaster CRTV, Vamoulké asked why he has spent the past three and a half years in provisional detention on a charge for which the prosecution has no evidence. The 26th hearing in his case is scheduled for 7 January. Vamoulké is ill and RSF has been calling for months for him to be released so that he can receive appropriate medical treatment,
Cameroon is ranked 131st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.