‘Radio Taboo’ documentary will call attention to Cameroon’s censorship laws

Eleanor Dearman

Standing 100 feet high in rural Cameroon is a radio tower built by exiled journalist Issa Nyaphaga and his team of supporters.

The tower is an unexpected sight in Nyaphaga’s village Nditam, as well as in the surrounding towns in Cameroon, because community members have almost no access to technology. This makes it more difficult to spread education and common knowledge about a range of topics such as sex education and women’s rights.

“It’s another world where time doesn’t exist, and people struggle for basic life,” Nyaphaga said.

While living in America, Nyaphaga decided he wanted to help combat the ignorance in the Central African country. His solution was Radio Taboo, a community radio station that reports information that is traditionally taboo in the culture.

Nyaphaga is giving a presentation Thursday at the ART on 5th Gallery to discuss his life and work — particularly his efforts involving the radio station and an accompanying documentary being made about the station.  

“It’s going to be fun for the people, but it’s going to be highly educational,” said Sophie Rousmaniere, director of “Radio Taboo” the film. “It will give them a voice for their community, but it will also expose them to some information that could really improve people’s lives.”

Because of Cameroon’s isolated rainforest setting, radio is the most practical form of mass communication in Nditam and the surrounding communities.

Jim Ellinger of Austin Airwaves, an organization that has worked closely with Radio Taboo, said radio is ultimately the most effective way of getting information to people. 

“Everyone has a radio,” Ellinger said. “If they don’t, oftentimes we give them one. It’s free, it’s immediate, everyone in an area can listen all at once and most importantly it allows people to speak for themselves and to themselves.”

In response to the government’s censorship of knowledge, Nyaphaga became a political journalist who drew cartoons about all aspects of Cameroon’s news, but especially criticized those in power. His illustrations were seen by government officials and resulted in his expulsion from the country. 

“It was a normal newspaper with general information,” Nyaphaga said. “What got us in trouble is that the government had censorship laws, so they have to control what we publish.”

In order to make these stabs at government officials and work around the strict censorship laws, Nyaphaga and his co-workers drew the cartoons anonymously by signing them with a nickname. But when the government noticed his defiance, Nyaphaga was one of the first to be identified and arrested.

“I was kept in the bureau of information, which was really a government police office where they forced people to give information — so they tortured people,” Nyaphaga said. “I was hanged there and shocked for about two weeks to say the name of my friends because they had the nicknames of all the journalists and they asked me to identify who is really who. I didn’t do that.”

While Nyaphaga survived the investigations, he said many of his peers did not.

“I am very lucky today because I am one of the ones who is alive and left the country,” Nyaphaga said. “That’s why I decided to move to a bigger country where I could have a bigger audience to tell this story.”

Nyaphaga lives in the U.S. now, but returns to Nditam every summer for three months. As long as he does not engage in any activity that directly attacks the government, he can return.

Radio Taboo now runs on a citizen journalist system where trained local journalists in Cameroon will teach civilians in the area to report on things in their community.

Issue TV, an indie documentary group, has teamed up with Radio Taboo to create a documentary that will, when completed, show the radio’s establishment from start to finish.

The first half of the documentary will premiere Thursday at Nyaphaga’s talk, and the money earned will be used to complete and fund the film “Radio Taboo,” as well as to start and maintain the actual radio station. 

“What we hope to do with the film other than have it broadcasted on U.S. televisions and in the Western world, is we hope to bring a certain version of the film around to different communities [in Cameroon],” Rousmaniere said. “The idea being that the film could then in different areas that are not reachable by radio, inspire others and educate them in another way.”