Pius Njawe: Loss of a journalism giant

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On July 12, ICIJ lost one of its most embattled and admired members. Over a 30-year journalism career, Pius Njawe braved arrest more than 100 times for investigating corruption in his native country, Cameroon. In 1997, he was sentenced to two years in prison for reporting that President Paul Biya had experienced a minor heart attack during a soccer match. Njawe became West Africa’s youngest editor and publisher when he founded the newspaper Le Messager at 22. In 2000, he was named one of 50 “World Press Freedom Heroes" of the last half century by the International Press Institute. Njawe died in a car accident outside Washington, D.C., where he was attending a conference.

As a tribute to his legacy we thought we would share some of his thoughts from an essay he wrote for the World Association of Newspapers.

By Pius Njawe

I have been a journalist since the age of 15. I started as an errand boy at a newspaper called Semences africaines, in the city of Yaoundé, Cameroon. Over the past 34 years, I have been arrested 126 times while carrying out my profession as a journalist. Physical and mental torture, death threats, the ransacking of my newsroom etc, has often been my daily lot in a situation where repression and corruption, even within the press, have become the norm. Woe betide the slightest dissenting voice in this context, for it attracts all kinds of wrath, even from so-called colleagues.

(Credit: World Association of Newspapers)My longest detention lasted 10 months. I was arrested on December 24th, 1997, for daring to wonder about the president’s health after he had experienced heart problems while watching the Cameroonian football cup final. On January 13th, 1998, I was sentenced to 24 months in prison. Four months later, the sentence was reduced to 12 months under pressure from national and international public opinion. But that was not enough to remove the pressure, and after 10 months, the president resigned himself to pardoning me, a pardon I had never asked for.

While my many detentions have largely contributed to confirming my convictions about certain democratic and human values, my long stay in prison above all stimulated my sense of solidarity with others, particularly the poor and the outcast. It strengthened my determination to use journalism as a weapon against all kinds of abuse. For there is no better weapon than words for restoring peace and justice among people, although it depends how those words are used.

To have the privilege of writing taken away from you overnight feels like being a victim of a crime. The prison governor called me into his office one day to warn me that as a prisoner I did not have the right to write, and that my persistence would land me in solitary confinement. I immediately started to think about what my long days would be like in a cell I was sharing with more than 150 detainees, almost all of them crooks, if I could not write. So I decided to defy the governor’s ban by stepping up my bi-weekly column, Le Bloc-notes du bagnard (The Convict’s Notebook), in my newspaper Le Messager.

I entered journalism the way you enter a religion; journalism is my religion. I believe in it, and a thousand trials, a thousand arrests, a thousand imprisonments and as many death threats will never make me change job. On the contrary, the harder it is, the more you have to believe in it and cling to it. Respecting ethical standards is of fundamental importance for anyone wishing to be a journalist. It protects you against all kinds of people who would like to teach you a lesson. When you are facing a judge who is being manipulated, it is your irreproachable professional defence that makes that judge examine his or her own conscience. It is what wins your colleagues over to your cause when you are in difficulty. Doing your job properly therefore seems to be the best advice anyone can give a journalist operating in a context of constant harassment.

And doing your job properly also, and above all, means avoiding “gumbo journalism”, a practice becoming increasingly widespread in our profession, where people write what they are paid to write instead of giving real information and the truth. While journalists have the right to earn a decent living, even in emerging nations, honest journalists never need pockets in their shrouds.

Journalists perform a social function, which gives them not immunity, but the right to look critically at the way a nation is being run. While playing this crucial role, it is important for them to be protected by the law, but also by the whole of society for which they work. Mobilisation is therefore essential every time a journalist is thrown into prison, or threatened with arrest or death. Because every time a journalist is silenced, society loses one of its watchdogs.

Reprinted with permission from the World Association of Newspapers.

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