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While Cameroon frets over image, nation's newsmen want freer press

This small West African nation is spit and polishing its image.


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It wants to attract new trade partners in the West. And the country's journalists are being encouraged to join in - by acting as an applauding audience for the government rather than front-row critics.

This co-opting of the press has taken on added importance here in the wake of President Ahmadou Ahidjo's visit to Washington July 25 to 28.

Freedom of the press is a niggling issue in many third-world countries. Governments, aiming to get on with development, often take the position that the press should serve government ends. But many journalists of countries where the press is restricted are chomping at the bit.

Here, in this tropical, black African country, the issue has generated an especially steamy heat.

The political stability of President Ahidjo's 22-year reign has allowed for a modest safety valve of press freedom. Although there is as yet no television, and the bilingual radio and major newspaper are government owned, there are a number of small, independent newspapers.

But because of recent arrests of journalists and increased restrictions since the passing of a 1981 press law, Cameroonian journalists are beginning to question the extent of that freedom. A recent conference here set out the lines of the debate.

''The country is at a turning point in its history. . . . We cannot afford to be like the British or American press - we have the task of development - to form a new society,'' a provincial delegate for information and culture told journalists.

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The delegate explained that the press is still in its infancy, and that what is needed is the concept of ''development information.'' Journalists should not feel that censorship is wrong, he said, but that it is necessary to curb irresponsible journalism - those who would like to ''dig up all sorts of things in our society for sensationalism.''

Some journalists present questioned the government's definition of ''development journalism.'' One claimed that the government hides behind ''a smoke screen of development,'' telling the press that the ''third-world people are not 'developed' enough to be given stories without censorship.''

''Societies and politicians should not be turned into sacred cows,'' he said. Another journalist declared that by restricting information and criticism, the government is postponing problems, not solving them.

A Cameroon journalist who asked to remain anonymous said the government is too secretive.

Journalists, like the people in general, live in fear of the secret police. ''Walls have ears, you know,'' he said, glancing behind him, then laughed ironically as he noticed the wall was a series of wooden slats - feeble protection from curious ears.

Before publication, proofs of the newspaper or magazine have to be presented to a censor, he explained. The local officer censors articles he considers to be a threat to security or a criticism of the government. As he put it, censors have journalists ''at their beck and call.''

According to a United States Department of State official, there is one newspaper that refuses to send proofs to the censor. The presses still roll, but security police wait outside the news office to read the first copies and if necessary impound the entire issue.

Recently, several journalists have been arrested by the police. Reasons include not obtaining government permission before publication, publishing articles critical of government censorship, and publicly demanding a government investigation into a rumor about improper fish storage.

According to a reliable source, one journalist was held for questioning overnight; another was held for 63 days.

The one-party government under President Ahidjo has maintained peace in Cameroon since 1960, along with a program of steady economic growth. It has avoided many of the pitfalls of other African governments.

Confronted with the daunting task of building a unified nation from some 200 different and often fiercely independent ethnic groups, President Ahidjo has had to perform a delicate political balancing act.

The news media are used to present an image of strength and unity. They also serve as an education service to introduce new ideas and methods. They deal with a variety of issues, including world affairs.

But, said one journalist, newsgatherers are forced to write against their conscience, and many are simply government ''hacks.'' In Cameroon, he added, there is a lot of ''clapping'' - making visible signs of supporting the party line.

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