Persisting under threat: The toll of ‘fake news’

An interview with acclaimed Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo Takambou

On March 1st, 2019, acclaimed Cameroonian journalist Mimi Mefo Takambou — editor-in-chief of Equinoxe TV and director of news site Mimi Mefo Info — visited the IWMF to speak about her experience as a newscaster in Cameroon, the on-going unrest of the Anglophone Crisis and her take on press freedom. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

The IWMF: Mimi, thank you for joining us today. It’s an honor to have you in our office. Can you tell us about the current climate of censorship and repression of the press in Cameroon?

Mimi Mefo Takambou (Mimi Mefo): Thank you for having me, Charlotte. In the past several months, reporting has been difficult — the government sees truth as a threat, calling it “fake news.” Arrests are still being made under claims of “falsifying news” and cyber criminality. Since 2017, 20 Cameroonian journalists have been detained for their coverage of the Anglophone Crisis. The government uses an anti-terrorism law from 2014 to intimidate journalists reporting on politics. These journalists are being tried in military court, with the government saying that the “state is in danger.”

The IWMF: Tell us more about the persistent civil unrest between English-speaking separatists and the French-speaking government, known as the “Anglophone Crisis,” and what it’s like to report on that issue.

Mimi Mefo: In 2016 teachers began to demand education reform; simultaneously, there was a de-cry of Francophone judges in English-speaking courts. Lawyers went to the streets, and teachers refused to go to schools. The government used brutality and force, which further radicalized teachers. Negotiations began but were interrupted, protestors were arrested and the Internet was blocked. During a protest on September 22nd, 2017, nearly 1,000 people died — it was then that they decided to take-up arms against the regime. In opposition, the government then declared war against the “terrorists.”

The IWMF: Reporting on these topics comes with a great deal of risk. Why do you believe your reporting is critical for the public, and the citizens of Cameroon?

Mimi Mefo: It’s important that current events are reported factually, and with accuracy, because there are a lot of underreported elements within this conflict. At times, citizen journalism can jeopardize the truth, which is the reason why I launched my website, Mimi Mefo Info (MMI). MMI lends roughly 70 percent of its coverage to the Anglophone Crisis and about 30 percent of its coverage to other local and regional issues.

I feel strongly that I have a debt to the people of this country, and a commitment to give Cameroonians accurate information; they deserve it. There are times when people are stranded, and it’s hard to determine if what you’re reading on social media is true. If you get information on my news site, you can trust that it’s researched and it’s verified.

In the face of fear, it’s critical to keep talking about what’s happening.

The IWMF: What was is like to be imprisoned last year simply for reporting the news, and for telling the truth?

Mimi Mefo: I would not wish imprisonment for anyone. It was eye opening for the Cameroonian media landscape. When I was jailed last year, there was a mobilization of journalists and lawyers — people came together to defend press freedom and both the safety and livelihood of journalists. In a way, the experience elevated the need for journalists. The government would not be focused on my voice unless they wanted something contained. Objectivity, fairness and balance is critical, but I do not exist to please the government.

The IWMF: What does being a fearless journalist mean to you?

Mimi Mefo: Being able to do what I do — reporting on the news in Cameroonian — is fearless. We are facing a “new normal” here where multiple arrests, criminal court trials and prison stays are standard. In addition, being one of the few female journalists covering the Anglophone Crisis — especially when many areas are deserted and coverage is low — is fearless. I am ready to go again.

The IWMF: Why are you ready to return, despite the continual conflict?

Mimi Mefo: I still have so much to offer to my community, and there is still a lot of support needed across the region. It’s not an ideal situation for any journalist; it’s scary, and there are repeated threats, but I want to go back to my country freely to continue my purpose.

The IWMF: Being a female journalist in Cameroon brings extra, undue pressure. Can you tell us what makes that position unique — the reality and the challenges?

Mimi Mefo: In my country, there are inferiority tactics as well as online bullying and harassment to try to stop me from doing my job; much of it is based on my gender. For me, and for any female journalist in Cameroon, it takes a lot of determination to keep writing because the experience can become traumatic, and its omni-present. I want to fight for my country, and my people, but at times it’s hard because my life, too, is at stake.

The IWMF: You are now in London with English PEN doing out-of-country training as well as traveling internationally. What are you concentrating on now?

Mimi Mefo: My experience in England is giving me time to build up my professional acumen, and perform more research than was possible before. I’m also taking time to reflect on my arrest, and prison stay, so I can begin to tell my story in writing. What I’m most excited for is the fellowship work and the meetings with press advocacy organizations. My focus will always remain on reporting the truth amidst crisis, but I’m also expanding my writing on other advocacy issues, women’s rights and access to resources for women in prison.

If you’d like to follow Mimi, you can find her on Twitter and her reporting on Mimi Mefo Info.