“I traded my camera for a mop and broom: Luis Horacio Njera

In Mexico and the Republic of Cameroon, journalism has become dangerous work. Yesterday five reporters from the two countries were awarded International Press Freedom awards by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for overcoming impossible odds to simply report the news.

In the Republic of Cameroon, where the long-reigning president has complete control over the country, journalism has become dangerous work. Reporters are routinely harassed and detained.

Three Cameroonian journalists — Robert Mintya, editor of Le Devoir, Serge Sabouang, editor of La Nation, and Bibi Ngota, editor of Cameroun Express — were all imprisoned in March 2010, accused of possessing documents compromising to key figures in the Republic. Ngota died in prison — Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) believes the cause was a lack of medical attention and the prison’s notoriously appalling conditions. Eight months later, his two colleagues remained in prison.

“I’m scared,” Mintya says in a video from a prison hospital after he was severely beaten in his cell. “They’re coming up with ways to eliminate me. I need help, I need support.” The CJFE provided that support by following the story of the three men and pressuring the Cameroun government to release them. The trio of editors was awarded one of two International Press Freedom Awards at CJFE’s annual gala Thursday night in Toronto. The award is given to journalists that have “overcome enormous odds simply to produce the news.”
Patrick Gossage by Dana Lacey
This time, the story ends on a cautious up-note: Patrick Gossage, chairman and founder of Media Profile, stood proudly on stage with a copy of the day’s Cameroun Express (pictured). The news, written in giant, ecstatic headlines: Mintya and Sabouang have been released from jail after eight long months, literally the day before they were to receive CJFE’s award, although only on a conditional release.
Ngota's sister Thérèse Tchoubet by Dana Lacey
Ngota’s sister Thérèse Tchoubet (pictured on left), who brought a large photo of the late journalist onstage, accepted the award on their behalf. The English translation: “It’s because of this award and the attention it brought to the case back home that Serge and Robert were released. I will bring this message of solidarity back with me. Vive le Canada.”

Now, we can only hope that Mintya and Sabouang are able to return to their work as journalists without further retribution — although unless the Cameroon government drops the charges against them and acknowledges that they were doing their job as journalists, they may well end up back in prison.

The evening also featured video testimonials from journalists that were beaten, assaulted or arrested during the G20 protests in Toronto this summer. Read Grant Buckler’s report about police mistreatment of journalists here.

The second International Press Freedom Award was given to a pair of Mexican journalists: Luis Horacio Nájera and Emilio Gutiérrez Soto.
Luis Horacio Nájera by Dana Lacey
“Let me present to you, the refugee’s BlackBerry,” Nájera deadpanned, holding up his hand-written notes. He quickly switched to a more sombre tone, describing the environment of fear and corruption that he and his colleagues endured in Mexico. “Living in fear is not a life,” he said. “36 journalists have been killed in Mexico City since 2006, please help us to stop this massacre.” Nájera had a difficult decision to make: He’s married with three children, and was worried what might happen to his family if he stayed in the country. In a video, Emilio Gutierrez Soto echoed the sentiment: “I had to sleep during the day to make sure my kid was safe at night.”

Nájera emigrated to Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside, where he catches the odd snippet of the now all-too-familiar gang speak, and occasionally captures alleyway drug deals on his small Canon. He’s thankful for a fresh start, but he’s a lifer journalist who’s stuck working as a janitor. He’s anxious to get back in the newsroom. (Read J-Source‘s story about his work.) “When I locked my house, and heard that key click, I knew I was leaving everything behind, that the life I had built was torn from me. Everything I had, even the work I love so much…When I came to Canada, I traded my camera recorder for a mop and a broom.”

Nájera’s story isn’t unique — CJFE’s awards book is packed with stories about journalists stripped of their freedoms or murdered in the pursuit of truth. This week last year, 39 journalists were murdered in the Philippines in a single day, now dubbed the Maguindanao massacre. No one has yet been found accountable.

Photos by Dana Lacey