When journalist Haman Mana, 57, got news that Cameroon’s media tycoon, Jean Pierre Amougou Belinga, was arrested as part of investigations into the gruesome murder of his colleague Martinez Zogo he was guardedly optimistic.
“Such an arrest should not call for a celebration, much less when he is still a suspect,” Mana, who is the publisher of the privately-owned Le Jour French-language daily newspaper in Cameroon, told The Epoch Times.
“As someone who has been threatened directly and physically, I can’t say the threat is over yet because we didn’t have to deal with [just] an organized force. We were dealing with a terrorist force.
“Generally, the sponsors of mafia networks have far-reaching powers even when they are behind bars [as is the present case]. I am stupefied that we’ve come to this. Very appalled to say the least,” Mana said.
Amougou—CEO of L’Anecdote media conglomerate in Cameroon who also has holdings in banking, finance, insurance, and property—appeared before the Yaounde Military Court on Feb. 14 following his arrest a week earlier.
But he, and the more than 20 other suspects—among them, Bruno Bidjang, head of his media group, Thomas Raymond Etouni Nsoe, former presidential guard commander who became head of his security, as well as Leopold Maxime Eko Eko, head of the country’s intelligence unit similar to FBI and its special operations director, Justin Danwe—were sent back to their cells at the gendarmerie headquarters in Yaounde by the Military Prosecutor for an additional investigation to better establish their roles in the murder case.
Martinez Zogo, director of the privately owned Amplitude FM radio station in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, was abducted on Jan. 17 by unidentified attackers.
Zogo’s dead and mutilated body was found about 12 miles from Yaounde five days later in an advanced state of decomposition.
In a damning report published on Feb. 3, a rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), cited one of the suspects, Justin Danwe, confessing his involvement in the gruesome operation to eliminate Zogo during his interrogation—and this with the knowledge of his boss.
“He provides a detailed description of how Zogo was followed for a week, in order to establish the pattern of his movements, until his abduction on the evening of Jan.17 by members of the General Director of External Research [similar to FBI] including Danwe, who was the one in charge,” partly reads the RSF’s report.
“Zogo was reportedly taken to a building under construction that belongs to Jean Pierre Amougou Belinga, a powerful business man who Zogo had accused of embezzlement,” said the RSF’s report which added the journalist’s killing amounted to a “state crime.”
According to Danwe’s confession, Belinga himself then beat Zogo in the basement of his building and telephoned justice minister Laurent Esso, to whom he is close, to ask him what Zogo’s fate should be.
Esso, who is one of the most powerful members of the government, allegedly responded that Belinga should “finish the job” to avoid a repetition of the case of Paul Chouta, a journalist who was beaten last year by a mysterious group of assailants who were never [identified].
Sadibou Marong, director of Reporters Without Borders’ sub-Saharan Africa bureau, told The Epoch Times that Zogo’s death is testament to how far “press freedom predators” can go in planning to silence the media stakeholders.
“They can set up the worst ever strategy to follow a target, as they did to Zogo for a week until his abduction,” he said, further noting that the ongoing investigations ordered by President Paul Biya and involving a mixed continent of gendarmes and police officers have made “extraordinary progress” in the past few days.
“We have been informed that other important persons, including several other ministers close to Belinga, could have been informed in advance of the plan to kill Zogo and could even have been involved. Now the challenge is: How much further will the investigation go?” Sadibou questioned.
A few days before he was killed, Zogo’s name—including that of close to a dozen other Cameroonian investigative journalists and whistle blowers allegedly lined up for murder—had gone viral on social media.
They were reportedly targeted for uncovering a massive embezzlement scandal that has come to be known simply as lines 94-65-57—which are emergency funds that the Cameroon government could use at its discretion to offer financial aid to various structures or individuals.
“There is a common thread that connects all the journalists earmarked for murder on this list: those who took interest in denouncing the alarming public procurements and [other] funds which were being channelled into Amougou Belinga’s accounts,” confirmed Mana of the Le Jour local tabloid who was also blacklisted.
Zogo, 51, was known for using his Embouteillage (traffic jam) daily programme on the Amplitude FM radio station to tackle cases of corruption—often going as far as questioning important personalities by name.
The Epoch Times saw a report that the late Zogo had compiled as evidence of Belinga’s fraudulent acquisition of 46 billion central African francs (approximately US$74 million) from such emergency funds between 2013-2021 with the complicity of some state officials.
Copies of which he filed to the anti-corruption commission, centre regional appeal court, the supreme court, the prime minister’s office, the secretariat general of Cameroon’s presidency, among other key state institutions, for appropriate action to be taken.
The said amount represents just a “tiny part of the overall sums received from the public treasury by Belinga through his various companies which were not declared to the taxation office,” Zogo wrote in the report.
Belinga is presumably just one among a coterie of elite bureaucrats including state officials to have unjustly benefited from such funds, according to media reports.
Mana still vividly remembers his last moments with Zogo prior to his death.
“The day before his kidnapping, Martinez Zogo came to my office [our offices are just 100-150m apart] and asked to see me. He asked for the door to be shut. After this, he told me: ‘I will be murdered … I will be murdered. You have to be on your guard because you yourself are on their list’,” he told The Epoch Times.
But Mana took this at the face value. “To say that I saw his death coming … honestly I didn’t think it could come to that.
“I thought they were just going to intimidate him like it is often the case. I least expected that this time around they were going to kill him in such a wild way—this is ritual killing at best.”
Brutal killings such as Martinez Zogo’s, are unfortunately all too common to many journalists in Cameroon.
Less than two weeks after Zogo’s mutilated corpse was found, another radio presenter and Orthodox priest, Jean-Jacques Ola Bebe, was found dead near his home in Yaounde, apparently shot by unknown assailants.
Both Ola Bebe and Martinez Zogo were outspoken voices against corruption—always using their platforms on radio to denounce cases of alleged misappropriation of public funds.
Ola Bebe, who was at the forefront in calling for justice and accountability for the murder of Zogo, reported receiving regular death threats that he suspected were from authorities.
Their deaths echo a grim reminder of that of another journalist, Samuel Wazizi—detained by the Cameroonian authorities in 2019 for criticising the government’s handling of a separatist revolt in the country’s English-speaking north-west and south-west regions.
He was only confirmed dead 10 months later but his body has never been handed over to his family.
“Zogo’s murder was pure evil, but was I surprised? I’m afraid not,” said Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“I read the autopsy notes shared by Zogo’s family and saw the photographs. I was horrified and then incensed by the brutality and cruelty of what was done to Martinez Zogo.
“I could not help but think of Samuel Wazizi, whose death in custody was very personal for me,” Quintal told The Epoch Times in an email.
Cameroon is currently ranked 118th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index and considered “one of the continent’s most dangerous countries for journalists.”
The central African nation is also the second-worst jailer of reporters in sub-Saharan Africa and fifth on the continent with at least five journalists behind bars as at Dec. 1, 2021, according to the CPJ.
“Countless other journalists have fled into exile, and we are aware of censorship and self-censorship amid a pervasive fear of reprisal if they report independently, for example, on the Anglophone conflict or on Boko Haram in the north of the country,” according to Quintal.
“They risk being arbitrarily detained—not to mention branded terrorists—because of the use of the country’s overly broad terror law to crackdown on dissent and then there’s the use of criminal defamation to silence journalists, including those reporting on corruption,” she told The Epoch Times.
The swiftness with which the arrests of Zogo’s suspected killers are unfolding is an unprecedented happening in Cameroon, unlike when authorities have often attempted to “sanitise” such deaths—seen in the death in custody of Wazizi in 2019 and that of Bibi Ngota in 2010.
To this day no one has been held accountable, laments Quintal.
“With Zogo, the stakes are apparently higher because it’s in the capital Yaounde, playing out in the context of a vicious power struggle and apparent settling of scores,” she told The Epoch Times.
“There now appears to be an appetite by sections of the government to act, and CPJ has welcomed this, but we want to more than just arrests, there has to be full justice.”
Quintal went on: “There have been sensational claims and high profile arrests, but at the time of writing this, there has been no transparency and no credible or public accounting by authorities.
“No one has been formally charged or brought to court and tried or convicted in terms of internationally accepted fair [trial] standards for open justice.
“Until that happens, we cannot say that there will indeed be justice for Zogo, the kind of justice and accountability that was unfortunately denied Wazizi and Ngota.”
Sadibou of RSF said the fact that Zogo’s murder was “planned by very high-level profile in the state hierarchy” offers some glimmer of hope such that those who took part in it will have “nowhere to hide from justice.”
“Martinez Zogo was a journalist who took great risks to expose the truth about corruption and bad governance. He was useful to his country,” said Sadibou.
“The process of the investigation into his murder should be impartial so that his killers can be brought to justice. And there is a strong need for justice. We are confident that the process will go up to its end.”
At a press briefing in Yaounde on Feb. 17, Belinga’s lawyer Charles Tchoungang said his client’s arrest was “illegal”—citing the warrantless searches conducted at Belinga’s house and at his media group’s offices in Yaounde.
He also accused the investigating team of failing to visit the crime scene.
Journalist Haman Mana of Le Jour privately-owned newspaper expresses fear that Zogo’s heinous murder and the global indignation that followed it, could easily divert public opinion from the core of the matter—which is the outright looting of Cameroon’s state funds.
“If corruption continues to be one of the hallmarks of society, l won’t be afraid [denouncing it],” he said.
“The Cameroonian society was completely outraged [by Zogo’s murder] … and rose as one man to demand justice. That’s why things went so fast.”
Quintal of CPJ expresses reservations that until justice is served to Zogo’s killers, the case remains “murky and sensational” given that the succession battle in Cameroon appears to have reached “fever pitch” and that Zogo’s murder and the threats against other journalists could instead appear “wrapped up in the current power struggle.”
She said the CPJ was considering turning to international remedies to seek justice for Wazizi after all internal remedies in Cameroon got “exhausted.”
“To this day, Wazizi’s body was never handed over to the family and there have merely been lies and obfuscation from the authorities,” according to Quintal.
“There has been no autopsy report, or credible, independent and transparent inquiry into Wazizi’s death. Was he tortured like Zogo, for example? Unconfirmed reports say he was, but without an independent autopsy, there is no evidence.
“We can only imagine the barbarity and cruelty that Wazizi had to endure, because that is how Cameroon’s security forces have been allowed to operate with no consequences and no accountability and with a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. Impunity breeds more impunity,” she said.
“CPJ has done a lot of advocacy around Wazizi’s case and we will certainly not give up trying to ensure that there is justice and closure for his family, in the same way that we will continue to seek justice for Zogo and other killed journalists in Cameroon and the continent more broadly.”