Cameroon govt accused of muzzling media over riots

YAOUNDE, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Cameroon’s main journalists’ union accused the government on Friday of trying to silence media coverage of anti-government riots after police shut down a popular radio station that aired criticism of the president.

Magic FM 94, a private radio station in the capital Yaounde, was closed down by armed gendarmes on Thursday after callers to the station criticised President Paul Biya for his handling of a wave of protests that have swept the central African country.

Officials estimate up to 20 people, possibly more, have been killed in violent riots this week that gripped the capital, the main port city of Douala and several western towns. They were the worst anti-government protests in Cameroon in over 15 years.

The protesters have been demanding cuts in fuel and food prices, but have also expressed anger over a bid by the reclusive, veteran president to prolong his 25-year rule.

In a broadcast to the nation late on Wednesday, Biya, who is 75, offered no concessions to the protesters but said the authorities would use “all legal means” to restore order.

Soldiers and police have been deployed in the streets of Yaounde and Douala -- which were reported calm on Friday -- as well as in other riot-hit towns in the west.

The closure of Magic FM 94 followed the shutting down of another private radio, Equinoxe, in Douala on Tuesday.

Equinoxe’s sister TV station was closed by authorities last week after its coverage of growing opposition to an announcement early this year by Biya that he might change the constitution to stay in power when his term ends in 2011.

The head of the National Cameroon Journalists’ Union, Jean Marc Sobboth, condemned the measures against private media.

“This is simply a case of transferred aggression, because I cannot understand why the authorities have decided to close these radios only at a time when the country is traversing a serious crisis,” he told Reuters.


Magic FM 94 journalist Martin Nzogo, who was conducting the call-in programme when police interrupted on Thursday, said “people were calling in from all parts of the town to denounce the president”. The gendarmes turned off the station’s power and carried off studio equipment and transmitters, he said.

Biya said in his New Year message last month that his government would “re-examine” the constitution after what he said were popular calls for him to stay on past 2011. The constitution requires Biya to step down that year.

Biya’s party won an overwhelming parliamentary majority last year in elections the opposition dismissed as a sham. This could allow it to change the constitution.

Earlier this month, Equinoxe TV broadcast an interview with John Fru Ndi, leader of the main opposition Social Democratic Front, in which he accused Biya of wanting to rule for life.

Like many other TV and radio stations in Cameroon, Magic FM 94 and Equinoxe were operating without broadcasting licences while media authorities considered their applications.

Stations are generally allowed to continue operating during the lengthy application process under what the authorities have termed ‘administrative tolerance’. (Additional reporting by Talla Ruben in Doula; Writing by Pascal Fletcher)