Saturday, July 21, 2018

Reflections on getting shut down by the police

(No longer in BONABERI, CAMEROON)—A day after our run in with the local gendarmerie (see previous post below detailing how police shut down our peace journalism seminar), I’m still processing what happened, and how. Here are some random observations:

--The journalists attending the workshop said they would have all been arrested on Friday had two white foreigners, myself and my colleague Alexander, not been present. The journalists said if they’d been arrested Friday, they’d have to spend the entire weekend in jail before their case was heard on Monday. 

--What would I have done if the police had tried to arrest the journalists? I lay awake last night thinking about this. I think it would be my duty to stand with my seminar participants, and insist that they arrest me, too. I’d hope the stink caused by arresting me might prevent them from taking the journalists into custody.

--Were we targeted because we were English speakers meeting in a French region? In my previous blog, my colleagues said this was the case. However, at least one Facebook commenter said that we may have been treated even worse in the English speaking regions because our activities might’ve been seen as subversive. 

--The raid was led by Bonaberi’s chief of police who met with my colleague Alexander. The chief was reportedly very professional and calm. The officers accompanying him were also non-aggressive. Despite their professionalism, their presence was intimidating.

--After the raid, probably 10 participants attending my workshop came up to me and said, “Now you know what it is like to be a journalist in Cameroon.”

--I got a lesson in turning the other cheek. Before they dispersed us, the authorities let us eat lunch. At lunch, a participant noticed the cops sitting outside, and commented that they need to eat, too. He went outside and invited the policemen to join us for lunch. At the time, I thought to myself that I’d rather feed the leftover food to the dogs rather than to the police. Today, I think the journalists did the right thing. I’m wondering now if this Cameroonian generosity of spirit, this innate magnanimity, can be harnessed to avert what many believe is an inevitable civil war.

Friday, July 20, 2018

In Cameroon, police raid, shut down peace journalism seminar
(BONABERI, CAMEROON)—As we wrapped up the morning segment of today’s peace journalism seminar, an ominous warning came my way: the police were on their way. A few moments later, I looked outside and there they were, four uniformed police/gendarmes looking menacing and wearing, appropriately, brown shirts.

I wondered if my colleagues and I, not to mention the 28 journalists, would be arrested. However, I wasn’t frightened, only furious.

It seems they came to order us to stop the seminar immediately, which we had done anyway for our lunch break. They said that the organization sponsoring our seminar hadn’t filled out the requisite permission form in a timely fashion. In our defense, my colleagues found out about the permission form requirement yesterday, which is when they filed all of the correct paperwork at the local government officials’ offices. Our paperwork was accepted without comment or complaint.

According to journalists, the paperwork deadline was just an excuse to shut us down. One journalist I spoke to was convinced that local French-speaking authorities in Bonaberi singled us out (“discriminated against us”) because the participants were from English speaking regions, and that our topic, peace journalism, was too sensitive. I discussed this theory with six other journalists, all of whom agreed that we were targeted because of our language and subject matter. One other reporter said he wasn’t all surprised by the officials’ heavy-handed actions.

In enforcing the shut-down order, no one was arrested, and no one physically accosted. The cops let us eat lunch, then just waited around until the participants left the hotel where we were holding the seminar. 

The irony is that this is just the kind of thing we discussed during the morning session. I had the 28 participating journalists fill out a survey wherein they indicated the threat level they experience as journalists in a conflict region. One of the threats I asked them to assess (on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the largest threat) was intimidation by government officials. After we were forced to stop, I  joked to the participants that I should have added a number 6 to the scale, representing “it’s happening right now!”

As bad as things seem in the U.S. now, or in Europe where the right wing is on the march, events like today’s underscore the preciousness of our civil liberties, including the right to peaceably assemble. It’s a right I know my Cameroonian colleagues would cherish if they can ever attain it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

On Language: What exactly is a massacre?
My recent presentation introducing peace journalism to the journalists at Canal Duex, a TV station in Douala, was punctuated by some thoughtful, pointed questioning about language. Latching onto an example that I used, a journalist and I had an interesting exchange about the word “massacre.”
Considering PJ and language at Canal Deux, Douala, Cameroon

I told the journalists that I thought “massacre” was a term to be avoided, since it is subjective and imprecise. It’s the kind of term, I think, that can fuel anger and exacerbates an already bad situation. The journalist challenged this thinking, saying that if authorities drag children out of their huts and shoot them (which is a real-life scenario here), that this is definitely a massacre, and that using the word only verifies the obvious. I held my ground, re-stating that what Person A labels a massacre is different than what Person B thinks is a massacre. How many people must die, I asked, to qualify as a massacre? This is where the vagueness of the term, and its inflammatory nature, must be considered.

Though we didn’t change each other’s minds, we agreed that the discussion itself was valuable, and that the important thing is that we as journalists are thoughtful and intentional about the language we use. 

Cameroon PJ seminars moved, shortened
(CAMEROON)—Our peace journalism seminars planned for the next two weeks have been moved out of the northwest and southwest regions. The participants will instead travel to attend the seminars in safer parts of Cameroon.

The move was necessitated by escalating violence in these regions, including deadly attacks against police as well as roadblocks (snarling traffic on main roads) in the last few weeks. Also, separatists are calling for general strikes (called “ghost towns” here) today (Monday) through Wednesday. All activity in the northwest and southwest regions will cease—there will be no meetings, business activity, etc. No vehicular traffic will be allowed. I’m told those who ignore the strike are violently punished by the separatists who are organizing the “ghost town.”

This is the second batch of strikes I’ve encountered this year. Opposition protesters organized similar city-wide shut downs earlier this year while I was teaching in northern Ethiopia.

Moving the seminars will mean that some participants won’t be able to attend since they can’t travel to the new, secondary site. Both of the northwest/southwest region seminars will have to be shortened to work around the strikes and to accommodate travel schedules and budgets. 

This all means that I’m going to have some unanticipated down time here during the coming weeks. 
I’ll let you know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Does just discussing peace mean you're taking sides?

(CAMEROON)—After less than one day in Cameroon, a theme for this project has already emerged: the safety of journalists, and those who train journalists.

My first meeting today was with a journalist who fled the western Anglophone region of the country after he and his family were threatened. I won’t use his name here for obvious reasons. In those Anglophone regions, the northwest and southwest, there is a violent, anti-government insurgency led by separatist rebels. My new journalist friend said he was targeted by rebel groups for doing his job and reporting factually.

Hearing this, I shared the story of an editor I worked with in Indian controlled Kashmir several years ago who was recently shot and killed for nothing more than doing his job. (See my blog below).

This led to a discussion about how a journalist, or a peace journalism trainer like me, becomes a target in the northwest or southwest regions. The reporter said that discussing peace in the Anglophone regions put him in jeopardy since a pro-peace message is seen by the rebels as a pro-government, anti-rebel stance. He said that he’s even been accused of being bribed by the government to discuss peace.

Selfishly, perhaps, I asked about what this means for me, and for our month-long peace journalism project held with the Cameroon Community Media Network, much of which is scheduled to occur in cities in the northwest and southwest regions.  The journalist firmly advised me to not go to the regions because he believed the seminars' trainers and participants would be targeted by rebels. He said the rebels would see our peace journalism program as pro-government, and that some rebels would even believe that I am being paid off by the government to blanket the region with pro-peace and thus anti-rebel messages. 

Of course, this is preposterous, I commented. My friend agreed, but said that the rebels would believe this nonetheless. He pointed out that anti-government forces actually accused UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres of being bribed by the government to come to Cameroon and advocate for peace. I guess if they think the UN secretary general was paid off by the government, it’s not a stretch to believe that I could be paid off, too (presumably for much less than Guterres!)

Based on the journalist’s advice, and on information we are receiving from other experts on the ground, it now looks like we won’t be traveling to the northwest or southwest.  Instead, we will transport journalists from those regions to safer locales to learn about and practice peace journalism.
We can keep the journalists safe for a few days during the PJ seminars. It’s their safety after the seminars that worries me.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Airline gods trifle with peace journalist

If you see any of these headlines in the coming days, you’ll know the person referenced is me:

Passenger’s head melts at airline ticket counter; Authorities baffled

Man, on hold with airline reservations, crushes cell phone into dust with bare hands

Desperate passenger has “Is that ticket confirmed?” tattooed on forehead

I was supposed to be in Cameroon now, ready to begin work on my month long peace journalism project. However, the cruel airline gods had different ideas. Long story short—I got “O’Hared” Thursday (thunderstorms; delays; cascading missed connections). I had to wait until Saturday to try again. I made it as far as O’Hare, but had to turn around and come back to KC because the tickets I was assured 4,877 times were confirmed were not, and I would have been stuck in Istanbul for at least two days. I’m trying it again Monday, this time routing through Brussels. 

Yes, I know this is a “first world problem,” and that it not even remotely suffering in any way. Still, any of the headlines above is a real possibility if I don’t make it to Cameroon this time. Wish me luck.

Cameroon primer
Two recent media pieces about Cameroon’s troubles caught my eye. The first, in the New York Times, chronicles the mounting violence there, and the struggles of the English speaking (Anglophone) community.

The second is an excellent video by the BBC examining claims that Cameroonian authorities have burned homes and villages in the Anglophone regions of the country.