LIMBE, South West—Paul Nkemanyang, president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA), has fought off criticisms for taking two fellow journalists to court, in a libel case that has again blurred the line between freedom of expression and journalistic ethics.
Nkemanyang, an advocate of the decriminalization of press offenses, has repeatedly come under strong media attack for suing Franklin Sone Bayen, editor of Media People and Eugene Ndi, editor of News Watch to a court in Limbe, where he runs the Star newspaper.
He spoke exclusively to The Standard Tribune Thursday, after Bayen spent the night in detention, as the nearly two-year case moved from chambers to open court. City police took in the editor because he declined paying a bail of CFA50,000, which would have seen him walk away.
“Entering the hall, no franc had entered my hand,” Nkemanyang said
The libel suit involves social media remarks and newspaper reporting on how Nkemanyang raised and spent funds for a 2014 World Press Freedom Day event by Anglophone journalists in Buea, which the CJA co-organized with two other professional associations.
Nkemanyang denied in a phone interview Thursday that he received any cash from sponsors ahead of the event.
“Entering the hall, no franc had entered my hand,” he said, adding that all he got from Supermont were “30 packs of water and 30 packs of sweet drinks.” He did not mention whether he approached other individuals or organizations seeking funds and how they responded.
Bayen and Ndi have maintained their story and denied wrongdoing.
Nkemanyang spearheaded the fundraising drive with John Mbah Akuro, a journalist at CRTV, publisher of Timescape and president of Cameroon Anglophone Newspaper Publishers’ Association (CANPA), one of the co-organizers of the event. Akuro is also secretary-general of Nkemanyang’s CJA.
“The fundraising was conducted in a shady manner,” said Steven Ojong, the secretary-general of CANPA. “I did not know anything. I don’t know who received appeal letters and who gave what. No accounts have till date been given of the fundraising effort.”
“Free Bayen” and “Free The Journalist” were trending as a hashtags on social media Thursday
Nkemanyang’s case hinges on the disrepute he has allegedly suffered, and not improper accounting.
He said Thursday that he “received insults from everywhere,” after allegations that he had misappropriated or even embezzled money meant for the event began spreading in May 2014. The allegations, he added, “hurt me, hurt my family, and hurt the newspaper that I run”.
But the case has also put him in an awkward position and cast doubts on his work as an advocate against Cameroon’s criminal libel and defamation laws, which he fought through the CJA and other organizations.
“The Commonwealth Association of Journalists stands for decriminalization,” Nkemanyang insisted on Thursday but added: “I am not the law of Cameroon. I did not write that law.”
As criticisms against his action continued, most of it on social media, Nkemanyang pledged to keep the legal process going, short of public apology from Ndi, who is the first accused in the suit. Nkemanyang said both journalists failed to verify their story and ignored evidence he provided them – a letter from Supermont, stating the company’s contribution to the event.
“Ask for apologies on the forum and the matter would end,” he said.
In and out,” Bayen said. “I was in detention. I was not abusively detained“
Nothing at this point, it seams, would lay the matter to rest overnight. If Nkemanyang withdraws from proceedings, there is still the likelihood that its criminal part will continue. Both journalists face up to six months in prison and hundreds of thousands of francs in fines.
“Free Bayen” and “Free The Journalist” were trending as a hashtags on social media Thursday. Several journalists posted images of themselves holding posters with #freebayen and #FranklinSoneBayen written in bold. They resonated the broader problem of press freedom in Cameroon and not just this isolated case.
As the rampage on social media continued, Bayen left police custody.
“In and out,” he said in a Facebook post. “I was in detention. I was not abusively detained. My statement in a moment.”