‘I spent almost a month on a floor’: What it’s like to be imprisoned on false news charges

January 22, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

Akumbom Elvis McCarthy was on his way home from work when it happened.

He saw the soldiers reach into a taxi. He saw them pull the passengers out of the car. He saw them beat civilians with their guns.

And when he approached, McCarthy was arrested.

“In Cameroon, the government has never accepted crimes committed by the military,” said McCarthy in a WhatsApp message. “So any news concerning the brutal act of the military or government is considered fake news.”

A military tribunal charged McCarthy, a journalist for private broadcaster Abakwa FM Radio, with attempted secession, disseminating secessionist propaganda and false news, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. For almost a month after his arrest March 20, he was kept in a small cell in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region of Cameroon.

He shared food, water and a toilet with about 30 other prisoners. He slept on the floor. He made a pillow out of plastic water bottles.

“My imprisonment experience was horrible. I spent almost a month on a floor,” he said. “I was persistently going though brutalization in police (custody). I still suffer from a toothache that was (beaten) by a security officer while I was in a police cell. No one was allowed to visit me.”

McCarthy, whose first name means “God’s gift” in his local dialect, experienced hell for trying to report a story. And he’s not the only one.

Arrested at work

Around the world, independent journalists are increasingly being arrested on “false news” charges for publishing work critical of the government.

In a report published last month, CPJ found that three times more journalists were jailed in 2018 for allegedly publishing false information than two years prior. That increase comes amid growing misuse of the term “fake news” to attack the legitimacy of the media — particularly among despots.

Cameroon, whose press Freedom House categorizes as “not free,” is among the top offenders. The country trailed only Egypt for the number of journalists arrested on false news charges in 2018, with four of the 28.

In addition to McCarthy, Mimi Mefo Takambou was one of them.

“This country, in particular, loves to intimidate journalists, especially women,” she said. “But I didn’t know they would go that far — putting a woman behind bars for doing her job.”

Still, it wasn’t really a surprise.

Mefo had received anonymous calls, texts and messages on social media in recent weeks that threatened her life and career. People told her that she’d spend the rest of her life in prison — all for reporting a story about the ongoing crisis between the French-speaking political establishment and Anglophone separatists in Cameroon.

(Facebook)

Mefo, head of English news at the private Equinoxe TV station, was detained in November after releasing a report that cited social media posts claiming the Cameroonian military had shot an American missionary, according to CPJ and The Washington Post. She was at work when she learned that she was being charged with false news.

“Management had to notify me,” she said. “So my boss and I first contacted my lawyer, and we have an office lawyer as well.”

In Cameroon, it’s illegal to report “any news without being able to prove either its truth or that he had good reason to believe it to be true,” The Post reported. But something about Mefo’s arrest seemed off.

When Mefo appeared for questioning, prosecutors asked her about her report on the American missionary. They asked if she had proof that Cameroonian soldiers were behind the killing. And they asked if she published a report that houses had been destroyed and animals had been killed in the same region.

Mefo’s lawyers advised her to stay silent.

Then, prosecutors started wasting time. They deliberated for an hour, which became two hours, which turned into three hours. Finally, they told Mefo that she would be going to prison on pretrial detention — and they refused her bail.

“These charges had to do with the country’s penal code that I violated. Normally, we knew that it was within the framework of the penal code and it was a civilian case,” Mefo said. “But they sent me right away to court. They sent us to the military tribunal — this was no longer an issue of the civilian case, this was no longer an issue of the penal code or cybercriminality.”

Unlike a civilian court, in a tribunal, military officers act as both judge and jury. Guilt is determined by a simple vote, which doesn’t have to be unanimous.

“It was not an experience you’d wish even for your own enemy.”

– Mimi Mefo Takambou

Mefo was taken to a tribunal around 10 p.m. the day she was questioned. A prosecutor read her charges to her and asked her to plead. She pleaded not guilty. They didn’t buy it.

“That was the charge they put against me: It infringed on national security and peace in Cameroon and I was going to prison,” Mefo said. “I was handcuffed by the five armed gentlemen present, and I was taken to prison. That’s how I spent the night of the 7th of November — behind bars.”

“It was not an experience you’d wish even for your own enemy.”

Co-opting fake news

Mefo spent four nights and four days in prison before being released. Her imprisonment became international news. Human rights advocates came to her defense and lobbied for her release.

McCarthy wasn’t so lucky. He spent six months in prison.

On Dec. 14, he was released after repeated advocacy from CPJ and his colleagues. Before his release, the government called his crime a misdemeanor, despite the fact that he’d also been on trial in a military tribunal.

But McCarthy’s colleague had it even worse.

Mancho Bibixy, who also works at Abakwa FM Radio, has been imprisoned on false news and anti-state charges since December 2017 for hosting a show that was critical of the government’s marginalization of English speakers, according to CPJ. In May, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with Tsi Conrad and Thomas Awah Junior — two other journalists charged with false news.

Despite the charges, McCarthy said the government has co-opted the rise of misinformation to justify jailing journalists who write negative stories about the state.

(Courtesy Akumbom Elvis McCarthy)

“False news is just a means to play on the guarantee of freedom of press,” he said. “The Cameroon government and other world governments have included cybercrimes in terrorism laws, which includes fake news as cybercrime, and all is to crack down on free press and political opponents to the regimes in power.”

And Mefo agreed. In 2018, the government dismissed allegations that a group of soldiers executed two women and two young children despite video evidence. Mefo said the country’s false news law was just a convenient excuse to lock her up for reporting stories that cast Cameroon in a negative light.

“(My arrest) was something that was already planned. ‘She’s been doing her job for a long time now and we saw an opportunity to put her in jail,’” she said. “It had nothing to do with the American missionary — it was just an opportunity to put me in jail.”

Cameroon isn’t the only country to do this.

In July, Egypt passed a new law that subjects any account or blog with more than 5,000 followers on sites like Facebook and Twitter to the same regulations media companies face. That means the government could then charge journalists and bloggers with false news, which is illegal in Egypt. According to CPJ’s census last month, 19 journalists were jailed on false news charges last year.

Countries like Bangladesh and Rwanda also have laws that co-opt international paranoia about misinformation to infringe on press freedom. According to Poynter’s database of anti-misinformation actions around the world, at least five countries have created media regulation laws over the past couple of years that are couched as a way to regulate the spread of falsities online.

False news laws are nothing new. Across Africa, many governments have long had such laws on the books, Angela Quintal told Poynter. But since 2016, the CPJ Africa program coordinator has seen a rise in the number of journalists detained on them.

“False news charges have been there. It hasn’t just happened since Donald Trump,” she said. “False news is a blatant attempt by the government of the day to try to ensure they control the narrative. If they don’t like something, it’s very easy for them to claim that it’s false and then punish those who are supposedly responsible.”

Cameroon stands out for its use of military tribunals to try civilians, a violation of international standards. CPJ has long spoken out about the practice, but many countries across Africa still use the tactic in order to get around rule of law, Quintal said.

“Using military tribunals is unacceptable, and unfortunately we’ve seen this continue,” she said. “That’s not justice. That’s not you getting a fair hearing.”

It’s a problem that’s not likely going to go away anytime soon. Quintal said that government officials across Africa always bring up misinformation as a key focus of their media regulations.

“Fake news always comes up. It’s something that, time and time again, when we’re dealing with governments, representatives, such a big focus on, ‘How do we stop the so-called fake news?’” she said. “They’ve all bought into this rhetoric and you can’t move them past that. As soon as they don’t like something, it’s fake news.”

As a result, journalists like McCarthy and Mefo are caught in the crosshairs.

McCarthy said being a passive observer of history isn’t enough for journalists who want to make a difference. They also have to advocate for fair prison conditions and the advancement of human rights if they want to preserve press freedoms.

“I got a bad experience in Cameroon, but others should not wait to go and get the experience — but to join advocacy for better laws,” he said.