By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism
A shot was fired across the bow of journalism last week in Cameroon, where a journalist was kidnapped. The abduction scare was a reminder of the fragility of individual journalists, the importance of our profession, and the essential nature of collective action to protect ourselves and our profession.
Ambe Macmillian Awa, president of the Cameroon Association of English Speaking Journalists (CAMASEJ), was kidnapped Thursday, Feb. 21 in Bamenda in Northwest Cameroon, where there is ongoing uprising against the government. At the time, it was not known who took him, or why, or if he was safe
Ambe’s kidnapping set off an avalanche of advocacy on his behalf by CAMASEJ, the Cameroon Community Media Network (CCMN), of which Ambe is an active member, the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University, and, crucially, the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal was on the case immediately, seemingly moments after Ambe’s abduction, making inquiries, and bombarding social media with messages about his disappearance, and demanding his release. CAMASEJ disseminated a press release online that “vehemently” condemned the kidnapping, and called on the kidnappers to immediately release him, “making sure that no hair on his head is lost.”
Fortunately, this is exactly what happened. Ambe was released the following day, unharmed physically. In a press release announcing the good news, CAMASEJ said that Ambe was kidnapped by separatist fighters who accused him of advocating for re-opening schools, a stance seem by separatists as pro-government. Ambe said outside pressure may have hastened his release, noting in the CAMASEJ press release that the kidnappers kept receiving calls during the night when the news of his kidnapping went viral. Ambe said he suspects “this should have in one way or another make them uncomfortable in keeping him.”
This incident underscores the importance of collective advocacy on behalf of journalists both locally and internationally, and the need to support organizations like CAMASEJ, CCMN, and CPJ. It also highlights the fragile position of journalists around the world, and especially in places like Cameroon, where reporters are caught between the “two loaded guns” of government on one side and separatists on the other. (For more about journalists under threat in Cameroon and elsewhere, see the previous edition of the Peace Journalist magazine).
CAMASEJ said that the kidnapping was “tantamount to kidnapping all journalists in the region and the nation.” Indeed. Kidnappings, beatings, and arrests of journalists have a chilling effect on the profession, fueling self-censorship while discouraging the critical discourse that societies need.
While Ambe’s story has a happy ending, it should remind us once again that for journalists worldwide, danger is always lurking in the shadows.
In a press release upon being freed, Ambe wrote, “I appreciate the media solidarity thrown behind me nationally and internationally. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Let the past be the past. The practice of good journalism continues.”
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