International press freedom lobby groups have called for an independent investigation into the death of Cameroonian journalist Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe alias Samuel Wazizi, who died while in military custody 10 months ago.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) questioned his detention, the cause of his death and why it took long for his death to be made public.
Police arrested the journalist on August 3, 2019 in a suburb in the conflict-ridden Southwest region of the country, according to a statement by the Ministry of Defence.
He was transferred to military custody on August 7, then ferried to the capital Yaoundé six days later, Cameroon military spokesperson, Col Colonel Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, explained.
The military said he arrived in Yaoundé feeling feverish and died on August 17 due to an infection. “As a matter of fact, he [Wazizi] died as a result of a severe sepsis and not from any acts of torture or physical abuse,” the statement added.
CPJ said the Cameroonian government’s “cruel treatment” of the journalist “is truly shocking” and it is unbelievable that authorities covered up his death in custody for 10 months despite repeated inquiries from press freedom advocates and his family, colleagues, friends, and lawyers.
“An independent autopsy should be conducted immediately, and Cameroon must also launch an independent commission of inquiry so that those responsible for Wazizi’s death are held accountable,” said Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa programme coordinator.
RSF condemned the “bogus account” of the TV presenter’s death provided by Cameroonian authorities and called for an “impartial and independent investigation” into the circumstances leading to his death.
The defense ministry’s statement said the journalist had been in contact with his family while in custody but the press freedom lobby groups say the statement fell short of providing a credible explanation of how Wazizi died two weeks after his arrest.
CPJ said Wazizi’s sister-in-law, Metete Joan Njang, told them that their family had not been able to contact him after his arrest, and they were not made aware of his death but only saw it in a news report on June 3, 2020.
According to RSF, Wazizi’s brother also denied claims the journalist was in contact with the family while in detention. The unnamed brother told the advocacy group that neither Wazizi’s lawyers nor any relative had any contact with him after soldiers took him.
The Defense Ministry further added that the journalist was not arrested for his work but because he had links with terrorists.
“After thorough investigations, elements of the security forces had established that the latter [Wazizi], claiming to be a presenter on a local television station, was in fact a logistician for various terrorist groups,” the statement said.
His lawyer Lyonga Edward Ewule had earlier told the CPJ that Wazizi was accused of “collaborating with separatists” and “spreading separatist information,” but had not been formally charged. He said a court case against the journalist was adjourned several times.
On social media, journalists, politicians and activists have been using the hashtag #JusticeForWazizi to express their outrage over his death. Wazizi presented the popular pidgin language news programme, “Halla Ya Matta.”
Cameroon has a history of detaining journalists incommunicado, according to CPJ and RSF. At least seven other journalists are currently being held in pretrial detention in the country according to data by the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists (CAMASEJ).
Cameroon’s press freedom ranking worsened this year. The central African country is ranked 134th out of 180 countries where one is the freest, according to RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The score is three places lower than its 2019 position of 131.