(New York, NY) – The Cameroonian government’s continued, maximum-security detention of journalist Paul Chouta is an unwarranted affront to free expression, and an example of the dangers of criminal defamation laws, PEN America said today. 

Cameroonian journalist Paul Chouta is a reporter for Cameroon Web, as well as the manager of Le TGV de l’info, a Facebook news page with 80,000 followers. Chouta was arrested May 28, after French-Cameroonian writer Calixthe Beyala filed a criminal complaint against him. Beyala’s complaint is reportedly related to Le TGV de l’info’s posting of a video in which Beyala is seen arguing with another person. Chouta currently faces charges of criminal defamation and spreading false news, and remains detained in Kondengui maximum-security prison, having been denied bail. 

Chouta is known as a critical journalist who has reported on sensitive topics such as allegations of police misconduct. Chouta was attacked at knife-point by unknown assailants in February 2019. His colleagues said they believe he was attacked as a consequence of interview with the campaign manager for Cameroon’s jailed opposition leader.

Chouta reportedly faces up to six months imprisonment for the charge of defamation, and up to five years imprisonment for the charge of spreading false news, in addition to potential fines. 

“Paul Chouta has now spent more than five months in prison, and is facing the prospect of years of imprisonment, for posting a video on social media. This is an obvious injustice, and one that sends a loud message to Cameroonian journalists and everyday citizens alike that the Cameroonian government does not take free expression rights or press freedom seriously,” said James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America. “Furthermore, Chouta’s reputation as a critical journalistic voice raises the obvious question as to whether the government’s treatment of Chouta’s case–including the decision to deny him bail–is motivated by a desire to retaliate against his reporting. It is past time that Cameroon release Paul Chouta and drop the charges against him.”

PEN International, as well as PEN America’s fellow center PEN England, are among those free expression groups that have also indicated their concern over Couta’s case. PEN International has consistently called for states – including African states specifically – to abolish or reform their criminal defamation provisions, citing their potential to be wielded by the government or other powerful actors as a cudgel against critics.

“Criminal defamation laws represent an ongoing threat to freedom of speech, and Paul Chouta’s detention represents how easily such laws can be used to sideline and silence journalists who are known for their critical reporting,” Tager said. “We call upon the government of Cameroon to review its criminal defamation and false news statutes, with the goal of abolishing or reforming them to better guarantee freedom of expression.”

As a free expression advocacy organization, PEN America has also advocated publicly for the release of Cameroonian rapper Gaston Serval Abe, better known as Valsero. Valsero, who has criticized the Cameroonian government in many of his songs, was  arrested in Yaoundé earlier this year after attending a peaceful protest march. After nine months of detention – during which he potentially faced the death penalty for charges relating to his participation in the protest – Valsero was freed in October.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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