Unpaid wages, paid press conferences: How politicians manipulate the news in Cameroon￼
Unpaid wages and lacking insurance is endemic in Cameroon’s private media sector, according to dozens of journalists. This makes the media increasingly reliant on little brown envelopes- payments that often ensure friendly coverage. In the midst of an ongoing conflict, how can a manipulated media do its job?
“Perhaps I am scared if I report my employer to authorities for indecent work conditions, that I may get sacked.” Mohamed Auwal*, a private media journalist in Ngoundere, northern Cameroon, tells Unbias The News.
For Auwal, systemic structures are put in place that affect the wages and welfare of journalists who risk their lives to tell stories, and media owners are responsible.
“Other employers will not want to hire me because employers have a way of collaborating; I can’t even grant you an interview revealing all my details.”
Like Auwal, many private media journalists in Cameroon work under challenging work conditions, including non-payment of salaries and meager pay.
But in this country lying at the junction between western and central Africa, the plight of journalists has gone beyond inadequate funding. Cameroon is a nation governed by 89-year-old Paul Biya, one of the world’s oldest presidents who has been in power for over 39 years. While the Biya regime boasts of democratic elections, it has been a sit-tight dictatorship since November 6, 1982, and Cameroonian journalists are caught in it.
For this report, we spoke to one hundred journalists throughout the country. They told us about their struggles to receive wages from their employers on a stable basis, the persistence of small bribes by politicians, and a lack of an adequate pension because of multiple issues with the national insurance scheme. Eight out of ten private media journalists in Cameroon are owed multiple months of salaries in a row, and these journalists often work without employment contracts or any legally binding document. In a country dealing with conflict and corruption, these working conditions dramatically undermine the role of a democratic media.
Media mentions for money
Yerima Kini Nsom, a senior journalist with over 25 years experience, pointed to the “poor working conditions of private media journalists in Cameroon affecting the quality of the news.” He said that the overall performance of journalists’ work in private media organizations is overshadowed by concerns about how to make ends meet. Moreover, “you are worried about the future because most of the private media journalists are not affiliated with the National Social Insurance Fund (NSIF).”
NSIF, as a social protection scheme for workers in Cameroon, is also meant to guarantee retirement benefits for persons who have put in at least fifteen years working for an institution and paying 8.4% of their salary as a social contribution every month.
To make ends meet, many journalists within the private media sector engage in unethical practices with resultant implications for the quality of their journalism.
Nsom further explains to Unbias the News at his residence in Yaounde, Cameroon, “Imagine you are covering a controversial story, and one of the parties offers you money. You might be tempted if you do not work under favourable conditions.”
The rest of the eight persons out of the sample size interviewed are either working without a contract, social insurance registration, or both and at least seven out of ten private media journalists in Cameroon are owed not less than six months of unpaid salaries. Some journalists testified to being owed cumulatively 22 months of unpaid wages.
The amounts received in these envelopes eventually determine the magnitude of media reports that get media mentions in print, broadcast and online media platforms propagating the intended narrative.
Journalists who dare to be objective and critical end up missing out on subsequent invitations to press conferences and are blacklisted by event organizers.
Ngombo keeps journalists going
“When we started experiencing irregular payments at my former workplace,” narrates Moma Sandrine, a journalist who left the private sector and got into public service, “my boss would pay us four times a year every three months, and it gradually went to every four to six months, and then nine months straight without a salary.”
“Politicians love to be in the news for the right reasons; there were times I had nothing to write about and needed money too. So this often led me to come up with story ideas that meant I had to talk to politicians; who, in turn, offered me an estimated FCFA 5000 or FCFA 10,000 notes [approximately 9USD or 18 USD] or even more, depending on how much they needed me to write nicely about them.”
Maureen Ndi, another journalist, told us, “Ngombo is what keeps most journalists going. I worked at a radio station belonging to the church for close to a year without ever collecting a salary, and I had to quit and look for another place.”
In most parts of Cameroon, the news is thus what the newsmaker wants it to be, and a brown envelope with cash can buy anyone exactly the news they want the public to hear.
Months of unpaid salaries
In a tweet made by Mr. Nkwebo Denis, National President of the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union, on October 18, 2021, he alleged that Mutations, Le Jour, Le Messager, and La Nouvelle Expression (all French language newspapers operating in Cameroon) owe workers a total of one hundred months of unpaid salaries.
Mutations, Le Jour, Le Messager et La Nouvelle Expression totalisent plus de 100 mois de salaires impayées. On comprend donc toute la furie des Unes— NKWEBO DENIS (@DENISNKWEBO) October 18, 2021
Less than 25 percent of private media proprietors pay their staff more than FCFA 36,250 (approximately 65.9 USD), which is the legal minimum wage.
Many journalists are thus paid between FCFA 10,000 (approximately 18 USD) to FCFA 30,000 (about 54.5 USD) at convenient intervals by their employers.
“When the media owners want to pay, instead of a payment, you are offered something, they say; they are giving you transport fare, you’re offered an amount that is not half of what you are supposed to earn.”
“Sometimes they give FCFA 10,000 (about 9USD) after many months. What will you do with FCFA 10,000?” Raymond added.
Wanchai Cynthia, National Secretary-General for the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists, explains. “There are journalists paid FCFA 10,000, 15,000, and 20,000 (between 18 USD and 36 USD). Often it is not regular. You could be paid this month, and you go for two or three months without getting paid.” She says the amount is not constant. “Sometimes when you get it, the amount fluctuates. So no one within the private media can comfortably tell you that I earn FCFA 100,000 or FCFA 150,000 [about 182 or 272 USD] except for those who work under the churches”.
“We have families; you have to pay your rent, provide for your family, and even offer help to external family members,” Wanchai says.
Illusion of peace
There is also the longer-term cost of bribing journalists to tell stories – inaccuracies in the public record. For instance, Cameroon’s Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, visited Bamenda from October 5 to 8, 2021. His visit was to communicate the government’s action towards resolving a five-year armed conflict – referred to as the Anglophone Crisis- in Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions that has left the country in turmoil since 2016.
The Prime Minister’s convoy was attacked by armed separatist fighters on his way to Bamenda on October 5, 2021. Though no one in the convoy was wounded in the attack, his entourage was visibly frightened and it took the smart intervention of his tens of bodyguards to shield him to safety. He narrowly escaped the ambush.
Still, the story would mar such a vital visit meant to give the semblance of peace in the region. The PM allegedly made available five million francs (FCFA 5,000,000, or about 9000 USD) which was shared among 40 journalists, giving each journalist FCFA 100,000 (about 182 USD), the best most had had in the entire year from any event organized by the government.
Despite the prevailing insecurity in the region, very few media outlets reported on the attack targeted at the PM’s convoy and the ghost town that he and his entourage witnessed during the visit, thus creating the illusion of a near-perfect visit.
Twisting the truth
Abah Rix Isidore, President of the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists for Buea, South West region of Cameroon, explained to Unbias the News how the practice of handouts is influencing the news industry.
According to Isidore, event organizers have discovered the precarious working conditions of journalists and are aware most do not get consistently paid salaries.
He explained that in preparing events, the organizers keep aside money and hand it to the journalists at the end of the event. Often, journalists do not want to report an unfavorable story about the person who has paid them money. It is assumed that writing such gets them black-listed because news or event organizers will not call them after they did not give them the kind of favorable media report they were expecting.
“Media owners with influential agencies or clients who pay highly for adverts will not dare to have their advertisers on the news for the wrong reasons; otherwise, they lose their income source. Such big advertisers tend to dictate to media owners what they should publish or produce as news for them”. According to Isidore, a journalist may even fear reporting on a rape case if it involves an important advertizer who may decide to take their business elsewhere.
Publishers blame the economy
Publishers blame the terrible state of the economy, which has been deteriorating drastically in the last decade, for their inability to pay staff salaries on time.
According to the BTI Transformation Index, “Cameroon’s autocratic nature prevents political and economic reforms”.
According to the 2020 International Monetary Fund’s debt sustainability analysis on Cameroon, “Cameroon remains at high risk of external and overall public debt distress, but debt remains sustainable.”
Cameroon’s public debt has risen very quickly within the last five years. According to a 2021 budget report presented by the Nkafu Institute for Policy Development in partnership with the Denis and Lenora Foretia Foundation and Atlas Network, Cameroon’s total public debt as of December 2020 stood at FCFA 10,334 billion, representing 46.9% of the country’s debt to GDP ratio.
The publisher of a major Cameroonian newspaper laments the delay by the Ministry of Finance in paying them a debt amounting to over FCFA 20,000,000, (about 36,364 USD) accrued within the last five years. Many other publishers complain of almost the same or even higher amounts owed by Cameroon’s ministries.
In the book Africa’s Odious Debt: How Capital Flight and Foreign Loans Bled a Continent, Cameroon is listed among the top ten African countries who have lost substantial assets due to capital flight. Authors Ndikumana and Boyce argue that Africa is a net -creditor to the rest of the world, as many of the international loans given to African countries have actually landed in the pockets of private individuals (such as government officials) who invest elsewhere- while the balance remains to be paid by citizens.
Currently, the country that is Cameroon’s largest creditor is China, owning 61% of the nation’s external debt. According to The Diplomat, the largest source of this debt is loans for the construction of a major port in Kribi, in the southern region of the country. Citizens have been protesting the Chinese-developed iron ore mining in the region to be moved through the port, arguing that the companies violate labor and environmental laws and do not benefit the residents.
Fraud exacerbates the situation
The government has set up a system to give subvention to the private media to accompany them in serving the public. For media organizations to benefit from this state assistance they must be duly registered, publish regularly, and have staff registered under the National Social Insurance Fund, making monthly contributions equivalent to 8.4% of their salaries.
For this report, we looked into four English language media outlets at the NSIF on September 3, 2021, with the permission of staff from these media outlets who wanted to know their situation at the NSIF. We found out that these outlets, with a staff strength of at least eight to ten journalists, each had at most two to four journalists registered under the scheme and had last declared their staff in January 2021, with some staff declared last in December 2020.
This appears to be a pattern: publishers select two or four of their most prominent staff and register them with the fund. However, instead of declaring them on their actual salaries, they under-declare them on about half or even less than half their real salaries. An employer who pays a journalist FCFA 100,000 a month in a bid to escape having to pay 8.4% of 100,000, which is FCFA 8400 monthly, decides to claim at the NSIF that he pays his staff less and declares the team on about FCFA 36,250, (about 66 USD) which is the minimum wage in Cameroon.
Someone who receives FCFA 100,000 a month is supposed to be entitled to a monthly social benefit of FCFA 30,000 (about 54.5 USD) if they serve fifteen years with the same salary. Because the cost of declaring staff based on their actual salaries is higher for the employers, they undercut their team and the government by rendering their staff to lesser retirement benefits. Someone declared on FCFA 36.250 a month will be entitled to a monthly benefit of only FCFA 19,000 (about 34.5 USD) after 15 years of service.
Opacity surrounding state subvention of the press
A fund set up for the media in 2015 to help the audio-visual press has yet to be very effective – but the purpose of the media aid given to publishers by the state is to help them equip their media houses, train their staff by providing training opportunities for them abroad and in the country and perhaps handle some running costs, like payment of salaries.
It was discovered that some media outlets had names of persons who had stopped working for the media houses since February 2018 but were still being declared up to December 2020, perhaps due to personal relationships with the employers. In contrast, some of the prominent staff who have been working for over five years didn’t have a social insurance number.
“The media owners go to the administration at the social insurance and the taxation department and bribe the officials there to get the documents they will provide to the commission at the Ministry of Communication. It’s a matter of corruption even at the ministry; some officials will subsidize some of these media owners for a kickback.”
Nkwebo continued to note that the journalists’ union is not represented in the commission that provides subventions. “The opacity surrounding state subvention of the press indicates a gentlemen’s agreement between the government and the private media owners. While some media owners are critical of the government, many support the government and particular ministers and directors in the cabinet, especially those in the communication and the taxation systems.”
He noted that even when some publishers receive this subvention, sometimes ranging from two to three million FCFA, (about 3636USD to 5455 USD) they do not pay their staff or equip them adequately to carry out their job well.
Mr. Ngankang Kisito, Director of Private Media Communication at the Ministry of Communication disputes such allegations. “When a publisher presents a file to us, we cross-check with those at the Taxation and NSIF to ensure that the file is up to date and has the exact information they have at their levels. We have a working committee with whom we cross-check the files submitted to our various offices.”
“As to the claim that some publishers benefit from the subvention when they shouldn’t, I can assure you that the Ministry of Communication is stringent on the process of checking the files submitted to us. We have a solid working collaboration with the NSIF and the Taxation,” said Kisito.
Risk journalists face from state and non-state actors
Apart from financial fraud and fear of victimization by employers, journalists also face a deteriorating situation for press freedom in Cameroon.
Within the context of the Anglophone crisis, journalists reporting on the happenings have continuously been attacked by both state and non-state actors. Journalists like Kingsley Njoka have especially suffered under lengthy pre-trial detention at an alleged torture center. In 2020, Samuel Wazizi, a Cameroonian journalist, died while in detention.
Before going to jail, Jackson worked for a media house that used to pay him less than FCFA 25,000 and had not paid him for several months. He had no contract with his employer.
Many journalists reporting the armed conflict in Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions are scared of falling into what is now known as “Jackson’s situation”.
Journalists as laborers
Mbomda Djomeni Casimir, a labour inspector and Regional Chief of Brigade in charge of Labor Inspection with the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, explains that journalists, like all other workers in Cameroon, are covered under the labour laws in Cameroon.
“The labour code in Cameroon stipulates that each worker in an enterprise must have a written contract. Though contracts can be verbal, we always encourage workers to insist on being given a written contract.” Once a worker is engaged in an establishment for three months, they are entitled to a written agreement. Copies of such agreements are supposed to be sent to the labour inspectorate so that it can be established if the employer considers all labour regulations.
Casimir advised workers who are scared of denouncing their employers openly to do so anonymously. This would cause the labour inspector to investigate their working conditions and use legal instruments to force employers to regularize the requirements of their workers. This provides hope for journalists like Mohamed Auwal*, who fears retribution for coming forward.
The Cameroon Journalists Trade Union and the Cameroon Association of English Speaking journalists are building strategic partnerships with some government agencies to push for better conditions for journalists while carrying out advocacy at various levels of the government to get things better.
Additionally, the Cameroon Journalists Trade Union is campaigning to adopt a press code in Cameroon that spells out conditions for creating, owning, and operating a media outlet in Cameroon.
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*indicates changed names for protection