It was the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram's most brutal and most spectacular attack ever on Cameroonian soil. When it ended, 14 people lay dead and 17 others kidnapped—among them the wife of Cameroon’s powerful Vice Prime Minister, Ahmadou Ali.
Not surprisingly, the international media covered the attack in Kolofata extensively, reporting throughout the day about the incident on July 27. Anyone relying only on Cameroon TV networks or local radio stations, however, might not have known that the country was literally under attack, and that Boko Haram had struck deep within Cameroon’s ruling elite. Cameroonians had to turn to foreign news networks and social media for that information.
Bate Felix, the Dakar-based West and Central Africa Reuters correspondent, was among the first to express indignation about the news blackout, lashing out particularly at the state-run Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV):
— Bate Felix (@BateFelix) July 27, 2014
Bate added in utter disbelief:
— Bate Felix (@BateFelix) July 27, 2014
Chief Bisong Etahoben, a former chief editor at the Cameroon Post, chimed in:
@BateFelix It’s like trying to hide the moon with the palm. What stupidity!
— ChiefBisong Etahoben (@ChiefBisongEta1) July 27, 2014
Edouard Tamba, who used to report for Le Messager newspaper, joined the conversation with a sarcastic tweet in French:
Tout va bien. La Crtv télé rediffuse un vieux match opposant l'Inter au Bayern…
— Edouard TAMBA (@ETAMBA) July 27, 2014
All is well. CRTV is rebroadcasting an old football encounter between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich.
Anthony Same questioned the lack of initiative showed by CRTV reporters based in the town of Maroua, which is a mere 80 km (50 miles) from Kolofata:
— Tony (@AnthonySame) July 27, 2014
So no journalist from CRTV Maroua is able to spend 500 Francs CFA [about $1 USD] on unlicensed taxi to Kolofata?
Surprisingly, Cameroon's private-owned media, which usually compensates for the shortcomings of the state-run press, also remained silent about the attack. Twitter user “Thierry HOT,” for instance, was quick to note the absence of coverage on the television station Canal2.
— Thierry HOT (@Hotthierry1) July 27, 2014
Canal2 begins its 8:00 pm newscast with a report on the centenary of World War 1. Unbelievable!
Also on Twitter, Nelson Simo concluded dishearteningly:
Avec #Kolofata , on a la certitude que l'existence d'une centaine de télés et de radios ne garantit pas l'accès de l'information aux pop.
— Nelson Simo (@lesikanel) July 28, 2014
We now know that having hundreds of TV and radio stations does not guarantee the public access to information.
Only 12 hours after the attack, following a press conference by Cameroonian Communication Minister Issa Tchiroma to confirm that the attack had indeed occurred, did CRTV finally report on the events in Kolofata. It was transparent to many that the network needed to know how the government wanted the story framed, before it could discuss the incident on air.
The media’s inability to inform the public in real-time led Annie Payep, a journalist with the pan African TV network VoxAfrica, to call for a new journalistic ethos:
— Annie Payep (@AnniePayep) July 27, 2014
The Cameroonian media should reassess itself. Why wait for an official announcement before reporting [on the Kolofata attack]?
Bate Felix thinks the answer to Payep's question is clear:
— Bate Felix Tabi Tabe (@BateFelix) July 27, 2014
Twitter user @lucxsam was one of the few online who defended Cameroon's media:
Laissez nos journalistes tranquilles, ils prennent déjà trop de risques komsa. #AmadouAli c un boss ils sont prudents…
— Łëšş īś møře (@lucxsam) July 28, 2014
Leave our journalists alone! They are already taking too many risks as it is. Ahmadou Ali is a senior government official and they are being cautious.
It wasn’t until three days after the incident that CRTV finally broadcast the first images from Kolofata. Many Cameroonians, including Nina Sitchoma, were relieved to see the station report at last from the scene of the attack.
— Nina Sitchoma (@Asitchoma) July 30, 2014
Finally images of Kolofata on CRTV. Or, of what is left of Ahmadou Ali’s home.
Not everyone was ready to exhale, however. Twitter user @dyManga thought it was ‘too little, too late':
&mdash ; ☆Ice-Creaminel☆ (@dyManga) July 30, 2014
It took CRTV three days to broadcast images of Kolofata. Yes!!! LOOL
The Kolofata attacks demonstrate once again social media’s slow but steady ascendancy over traditional media when it comes to breaking news. Melvin Akam, a former editor of the Politics and Economics desk at Generation newspaper, perhaps summed up best the new reality of Cameroon's media landscape:
Sur #Kolofata, les réseaux sociaux ont relégué les médias traditionnels au moyen âge de l'information.
— Melvin Akam (@Melvin_Akam) July 27, 2014
#Kolofata: Social Media has relegated traditional media to the Middle Ages.