Jon Allsop

A murdered journalist, the media mogul, and an epic reporting project in Cameroon

The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a report on the ZAM and NAIRE 'Arizona Project' that investigated the murder of journalist Martinez Zogo in Cameroon. With the CJR's permission, we are republishing it below:

In January, Martinez Zogo, the director of the Cameroonian radio station Amplitude FM, was found dead near Yaoundé, the capital. His body reportedly showed signs of torture: his foot was broken, several of his fingers had been cut off, and his tongue was deformed. A few weeks later, a suspect named Jean-Pierre Amougou Belinga—whom Zogo had recently accused of corruption on air—was arrested in connection with the killing. Belinga, too, had interests in Cameroon’s media: he owned Vision4, a TV network, and L’Anecdote, a newspaper. According to Reporters Without Borders, the head of Vision4 was also arrested, as was Belinga’s father-in-law and security chief, a former commander in Cameroon’s presidential guard.

Around two dozen members of Cameroon’s law-enforcement apparatus were arrested, too. They had all been implicated by the apparent confession of Justin Danwe, a law-enforcement official who alleged that, on Belinga’s instruction, he and colleagues kidnapped Zogo and took him to a construction site, where they tortured him while Belinga was present. According to Danwe, Belinga phoned Laurent Esso—Cameroon’s justice minister, with whom Belinga is reportedly friendly—while this was going on. Sources later claimed to have confirmed that calls took place between Belinga and Esso, and Belinga and Danwe, on the night in question.

Esso was never arrested, and many of those who had been were later released, either on bail or without charge. But Belinga, Danwe, and Danwe’s boss remained in jail. (Belinga’s lawyer has said that his client has been framed by powerful people within the government.) In early March, Belinga was charged with complicity in torture

Not everyone was convinced that the case was so simple, however. In early February, even before Belinga had been arrested, Jean-Jacques Ola Bébé, a radio journalist and (according to the Committee to Protect Journalists) “outspoken Orthodox Catholic priest,” appeared on a TV show and said that Belinga was not responsible for Zogo’s killing. He suggested that Zogo may have been “used” by people who gave him documents incriminating Belinga, and who might now consider him to be “an embarrassing witness.” The next day, Bébé, too, was found dead, shot in the face.

In 1976, Don Bolles, a reporter at the Arizona Republic, was investigating the local mob when he was killed in a car bombing. In response, dozens of reporters from across the US poured into the state to investigate his murder and continue his work, under the auspices of the recently formed media collective Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE. The following year, they published a major story on organized crime. Their work came to be known as “the Arizona Project.” 

Late last year, the Network of African Investigative Reporters and Editors, or NAIRE, was founded by nineteen journalists from fourteen different countries in partnership with ZAM, a Netherlands-based platform for African journalism and culture that has roots in solidarity movements in southern Africa, including the fight against apartheid. After Zogo was killed, members of NAIRE were among those who questioned the official narrative about the killing, and why officials had thrown the book principally at Belinga. “We didn’t think that such a gruesome murder was the orchestration of one person,” Anas Aremeyaw Anas—a prominent journalist in Ghana who habitually wears a curtain of beads to hide his face, and who CJR profiled in 2019—told me. NAIRE decided to launch its own “Arizona Project” to dig deeper. “The death of journalists is more rampant in Africa than anywhere else,” Anas said. “If our colleagues in the past did something we thought was formidable, why not take it upon ourselves to do it?”

According to Anas, who is one of the leaders of NAIRE, “virtually everybody” involved with the group was interested in helping out with the project. In the end, three journalists—Selay Kouassi, a reporter from Côte d’Ivoire; Bram Posthumus, a Dutch journalist based in the same country; and David Dembélé, a Malian investigative reporter—made the trip to Cameroon. Even getting to the country required overcoming visa hurdles, security briefings, and tricky travel arrangements; when they arrived, the reporters found that many potential sources were afraid to talk to them. They stayed in a hotel that, they later wrote, seemed “well suited for interviews with worried people who mostly talk in vague allusions”—called The Kremlin.

Press freedom is in a dark state in Cameroon. The country sits 138th out of 180 on RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index, a twenty-point drop on last year. The government of Paul Biya—who has been president for the past forty years, and is now ninety years old—and Biya’s allies stifle free speech, including, one local journalist told me, by manipulating ad placements; in recent years, physical threats facing reporters have intensified, with the deaths of Zogo and Bébé following that of Samuel Wazizi, who died in custody after he was arrested while covering a civil conflict in 2019. Cameroonian journalists made critical contributions to NAIRE’s project, but were not given bylines in order to protect their safety. “The people who came to finish Don Bolles’s story were not dealing with the Cameroonian regime,” Evelyn Groenink, ZAM’s investigations editor, who coordinated the project remotely, told me. “The mafia is also very dangerous, of course, but here you have a whole state apparatus that is out to silence you.”

Despite these challenges, the team from NAIRE put together a detailed story that complicated the official account of Zogo’s killing, even if it did not present a smoking gun. The reporters wrote that Zogo, a reported ally of the elderly President Biya, had essentially been sucked into a Shakespearean presidential succession drama, with Belinga seen as a possible frontman for one faction and thus, in the eyes of other factions, a threat. Sources who spoke to the reporters questioned how Zogo had been able to air claims of corruption against Belinga—based on files that appeared to have been printed out from a government computer—when suspicions of corruption against other powerful figures are rampant but remain “taboo”; indeed, the reporters themselves viewed evidence of suspicious flows from state coffers to entities outside of Cameroon in which Belinga was not involved. (Belinga has in the past denied claims of financial wrongdoing.) Kah Walla, an opposition leader, told the NAIRE reporters that she believes that one faction jostling for power wanted to use Zogo’s murder to destroy a different faction, which led to the mass arrests, which then ended abruptly, as if some deal had been done.

The reporters’ story certainly does not exclude the possibility that Belinga had Zogo killed. (The story does not offer any tangible leads as to the killing of Bébé, noting that no one has been arrested in his case so far.) Whatever happened, Zogo was ultimately an “unfortunate guy who was caught in the middle of two warring sides,” a Cameroonian journalist, who I’m not naming for safety reasons, told me. I asked the journalist if Zogo’s murder had surprised him. “In this country,” the journalist said, “nothing surprises any knowledgeable person at all.”

When NAIRE was founded last year, its members declared that they wanted to shift African investigative journalism to a “more systemic focus,” moving the lens beyond “corrupt events and corrupt individuals” to question institutions of state power and their capture by kleptocrats. Financial flows that had nothing to do with Belinga or Zogo were an important part of NAIRE’s story on Belinga and Zogo. “How many other Belingas do we have?” Anas asks. In an essay announcing NAIRE’s investigation, he called on the international community to hold kleptocrats to account: “Just limiting their travel, shopping trips to London and New York and their use of stolen money to buy Mediterranean villas,” he wrote, “will help hearten us as journalists and citizens who yearn for democracy, transparency and good governance in our countries.”

As with the original—and various other, present-day international initiatives—NAIRE’s “Arizona Project” also sought to amplify a message about press freedom: that killing a journalist does not kill their story. The project has, at least, succeeded in putting Zogo’s case before an international audience: The Guardian ran with NAIRE’s story, as did outlets in the Netherlands and across Africa. According to Anas, the story was front-page news in Ghana. 

The same week that Zogo was killed, John Williams Ntwali, an outspoken newspaper editor, was found dead in Rwanda. When I asked Groenink whether NAIRE and ZAM could replicate their Arizona Project to investigate the cases of other murdered journalists, she replied that they would need “way more capacity,” adding, in the case of the Zogo story, that it was “ridiculous” how much depended on the journalists sent to Cameroon and her “not sleeping for two weeks.” 

And such work, of course, is no guarantee of changing conditions in the country where the original crime was committed. The Cameroonian journalist with whom I spoke told me that officials in their country have tended to take foreign-media reports more seriously than domestic ones—but have now “developed a thick skin” to the point where “they don’t care about anything,” beyond factional fighting. I asked the journalist how they saw the model of reporters coming in from abroad to investigate the death of their colleague. “I can only feel sorry for us, we who are media practitioners in this country,” they said. “We have a government that does not really take the opinion of its own people seriously. They have made us use proxies to express ourselves.”

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of BooksForeign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today

See the original article, written by Jon Allsop in the Columbia Journalism Review, here.