A Cameroonian journalist has been handed a 10-year jail sentence and a hefty fine by a military tribunal for failing to denounce terrorism.
The sentence handed down late Monday was criticised by both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Radio France Internationale (RFI) for whom Ahmed Abba worked. Abba, who reported for RFI’s Hausa language service, was convicted last week after having spent almost two years behind bars, following his arrest in July 2015.
The 10-year sentence and the fine of 55 million Central African Francs ($91,133) was handed down in a military court in Cameroon’s capital city of Younde.
“Abba is found not guilty of condoning terrorism, [but] guilty of acts of not denouncing terrorism acts and laundering terrorism acts [blanchiment de produits du terrorisme],” France 24 quoted the president of the court as he read out the ruling last week.
Judge Edou Mewoutou also barred Abba from speaking to the media about the trial.
A lawyer for Abba said he would appeal the sentence.
His conviction is related to his reporting on the Daesh-affiliated group Boko Haram, which has led a nine-year insurgency against the governments of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Terror conviction or stifling press freedom?
"Ahmed Abba should never have been detained, prosecuted, and convicted for his journalism – let alone ordered to spend a decade behind bars," CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal in Johannesburg, South Africa said.
"This outrageous sentence signals the lengths that Cameroon authorities are willing to go to intimidate the media and thwart freedom of the press."
A statement released by RFI last week labelled the decision to convict him as incomprehensible.
“Given that no evidence has been provided in the case, this conviction is just about a journalist having exercised his profession,” read the statement.
Quintal, speaking to TRT World, said that the charges did not relate to any of his broadcast work.
“He was covering, as I understand it, the refugee crisis. And he had been reporting about things, for example, he reported Boko Haram attack. Say he said 2,000 people were killed. He then received a call as I understand it from a Boko Haram spokesperson or someone purporting to be a Boko Haram spokesperson who then gave him hell for getting his figures wrong. That contact is what has now been the issue.”
Quintal said under Cameroon’s laws the fact that Boko Haram had contacted Abba had made him a terrorist.
“It was not that he was reporting propaganda for Boko Haram or anything like that,” she said. “This is the irony, he gets criticised for his reporting on Boko Haram by Boko Haram itself.”
Quintal said journalists should not be penalised for not revealing their sources and there were at least another seven journalists in Cameroon who had been detained. Some had yet to be charged, while others have been detained under Cameroon’s anti-terrorism laws.
Quintal said those journalists were arrested in relation to their work in the restive Anglophile provinces of Cameroon.
The maximum sentence that Abba could have received in terms of Cameroon's terrorism laws was the death penalty.
At the end of 2014, Cameroon passed anti-terror legislation that imposed the death penalty on those found guilty of carrying out, abetting or sponsoring acts of terrorism facing the death penalty. When passed, the legislation was severely criticised by civil groups and opposition politicians, some of whom claimed at the time that the legislation would be used by incumbent President Paul Biya to extend his 32-year rule.
Government ministers claimed that the legislation was necessary, especially in light of the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation caused by the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency.
Biya has faced international censure for alleged human rights violations in recent months, including during the suppression of protests in the country's two western English-speaking regions.
Organisers of those protests are currently on trial charged under the same anti-terrorism law used against Abba.