(Or a Conversation with Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary ahead of the Communication Forum) By Mwalimu George Ngwane*
“ We reaffirm our support for any medium of expression that is capable of stimulating creativity and participation and channeling the emergence of a national culture that constantly derives its wealth from its diversity” – Paul Biya, speech at the Congress of the New Deal, Bamenda,1985
The announcement by the Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, of an imminent National Forum on Communication in Cameroon has left media practitioners and media observers with anxiety and expectation. While the Forum is not the first in the annals of Communication in Cameroon, it comes at a time when the State Television (CRTV) and the State newspaper (Cameroon Tribune) have over the years manifested a dissemination policy that runs against the grain of our bicultural and bilingual heritage. Broadcast and print spaces allotted to English language in these two state media undermine our collective search of branding the media as a cultural diplomatic enabler and driver whose content and context should be the cutting edge of nation building.
Watching programs on CRTV or reading the pages of Cameroon Tribune, one is left with no other conclusion that the osmotic language pressure of French is transforming the ideals of a bicultural media landscape into a policy of diglossia which is well scripted and religiously implemented. This was not the situation when Cameroon Tribune was first published on 1st July 1974 and when Cameroon Television was created on 24th March 1985.
Between the late 70s and the early 90s, Cameroon Tribune had the French and English editions separately until the death knell was sounded on the English version in the late 90s. This regrettable decision to tuck the English version under the armpit of the French version is what is today euphemistically called a bilingual National Daily. With close to 90% of the space allocated to hard news in French and the rest 10% to some peripheral information in English, the paper has yet to strike the chord of its readers in English. Not even the sometimes screaming headlines in English on the cover page with no matching substance within the pages attract or compel readers of English or Anglophones to identify with the National Daily. It is confirmed that the same contentious economic rationale that Ahmadou Ahidjo used in dismantling the Federal state into a Unitary structure on 6th May 1972 is the same justification the powers that be used in fusing the English and French versions of the newspaper in the late 90s. Irredentist clamours every 1st October bear testimony to the fact that the Unitary wounds are taking long to heal. So are the fusion wounds. In an interview granted Nfon V. E Mukete in the Eden newspaper of 16 September 2012, the statesman lamented “on the poor implementation of bilingualism in Cameroon Tribune where most of the opportunities for Public Exams are published only in the French language thereby giving Anglophones limited chances”. Visit any newspaper kiosk and you can be sure that the only Anglophone buyers of the bilingual National Daily are civil servants checking out on appointment decisions, business persons in search of announced contracts, students looking out for postings on and results of competitive exams and the unemployed in quest of job vacancies. This also includes government offices and corporations which are institutionally subscribed to the paper.
The formative and teething years of Cameroon Television were years of Anglophone excellence in audio-visual journalism. They were years when even the most prejudiced Francophone remained glued watching Eric Chinje, Victor Epie Ngome, Akwanka Joe Ndifor, Robert Abunaw, Ben Berka Njovens, Chief Forbinake, Shasa Ndimbe and the bevy of speakerines articulate with verve and conviction the drama of our tales through the medium of the screen. They were years when even those who bury their heads in the sand of the Anglophone problem could not be indifferent to the scintillating programs in English which led to the meteoric rise to stardom of the journalists of English expression. But they were also the years of beautiful programs in French whose equitable time-sharing with English had converted our television into a national patrimony. Today, prime time talk shows,sit-coms,soap operas and hard news are more in the French language leaving Anglophones with their “Hello” “7.30 news”, “Press Hour” ,”Monday show” “The World, this week” and some sporadic documentaries to showcase the English language telepresence. While home grown programs have increased and considerably improved, time allocation between the two official languages leaves a lot to be desired. Although in comparison to the private TVs, our state TV has better time allocation, it could be improved upon because all of us pay CRTV taxes. And time allocation for programs is not about Anglophone and Francophone population ratio in Cameroon. The fundamental misjudgment of policy makers of CRTV is to confuse geo-political demographic data which keeps French-speaking viewers in the majority and socio-linguistic trends which indicate that these same French-speaking Cameroonians are identifying a lot with an educational system that is rooted in English. The present lopsided state of biculturalism in our state media has had a toll on our nation building project, broken the communication mirror that is supposed to reflect our bicultural image to the world, stifled the mental production of Anglophones, atrophied the creative space of cultural professionals both as producers and consumers of English language, deprived a body of taxpayers of their legitimate Information rights and benefits, distorted the prism of Cameroon’s historical trajectory, closed the doors on employment, limited the marketing and sale of their products and thrown a large segment of their customers into the international market of Cable network.
This lopsided bicultural policy has made mincemeat of President Biya’s justification for establishing a National Television when he said “This is a particularly good opportunity for us to hail the advent of National Television because it asserts our conviction that a well-informed citizen is necessarily better enlightened about the actual life of his environment. He is also more aware of the major stakes in national development, more conversant in his behavior and better capable of performing his duties to the nation”. When our state media deviate from portraying our official language identity and weaving a tapestry of common citizenship, they become tools in the hands of self-serving policy makers interested in crafting their political agendas and cushioning their economic stress. No one can refuse that part of the blame lies in our mutual suspicion occasioned by political primordialist differences and social contemptuous pedigree which have made every Anglophone space to be constricted and controlled, monitored and managed, fettered and fizzled out. Yet if nationhood, as Ali Mazrui states, is ultimately a problem of culture, identity and consciousness, then the marginalization and exclusion of vibrant stakeholders would frustrate a sense of belonging and a denial to the collective engineering of our complimentary identities. At a time like this when the tam-tam of the Reunification Jubilee is still being struck and now that the Minister of Communication is opening the discourse on our communication anatomy, our state media needs to first undergo introspection and move from polarisation through language fusion to creative expression through language individuality. And there is no need for policy makers of the state media to take another seminar aimed at policy formulation because the solution lies in a number of options-sharing equitable broadcast time in English and French programs with alternative broadcast periods during the day, creating 2 National Channels 1 in English and the other in French language and/or creating Regional TV stations after the pattern of our Regional Radio Stations as well as going back to the ante-1995 Cameroon Tribune status quo. Simply put Minister Tchiroma Bakary, give us this day our bicultural state Television and give us back our English version of Cameroon Tribune.
* Mwalimu George Ngwane is author of a new book “The Cameroon Condition” published by Langaa Publishers in July 2012. ISBN 9789956727285