Wikileaks Cable 19: Biya Buys Foreign Media to Cleanse Corrupt Image
Monday, January 30, 2012This cable was written after one of President Paul Biya’s numerous cash-spraying sprees in chic European abodes was unearthed in the media in full gaze of distraught Cameroonians and scandalized international development partners. It was written in September 2009 by then Ambassador Janet Garvey.
CameroonPostline.com -- On 28 August 2009, President Paul accompanied by a battery of aides walked into two fashionable hotels at the French coastal resort of La Baule and booked 43 luxury rooms each amounting to about US$ 60,000 a night. The President and his acolytes made the little paradise their home for 20 days and paid about US$ 1.2 million for the rooms alone, outside other bills like food, champagne, shopping, gambling and daily massage sessions. Scandalized by such show of splendor by the ruler of a supposedly poor African country, a number of French media picked up the story and fed it to the world. The Cameroonian public went mad as the local press took up the cue on the story.
This cable recounts how the regime “lashed out with tit-for-tat planted stories” in foreign media in association with the mulling of the local press to achieve their agenda. To save his face at a time when debates were rife in France about the naming and shaming of corrupt African leaders, President Paul Biya and his advisers engaged a tough international battle that involved sponsored articles and financially-backed PR campaigns. But this could not save the big man enough from the sting of a resolutely offensive independent Cameroonian press.
As the cable recalls, a little known French publication at the vicinity visited by Biya took centre-stage in the defense of Mr Biya. A writer in the publication likened the reporters who broke the story to prostitutes and challenged that it was the President’s legitimate right to take a sabbatical wherever he deems necessary. Regime propaganda spinners also joined the fray with lousy editorials and comments destined to emulsify, though in vain, the bad impression left on public opinion. Well-known spin doctor Jacques Fame Ndongo was joined in the incursion to save the boss’ head by the truculent Communication minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary and a host of browbeating columnists at Cameroon Tribune, the pro-government newspaper.
Dragging the media debacle to unfriendly proportions, the regime got a group of Cameroonians based in France and supposed supporters of Mr Biya to write a comment likening the President’s visit to a recent holiday trip made by U.S. President Barrack Obama and family; failing though to observe that Obama paid the trip with his own money.
Such a passionate face-buying act involving huge payments to foreign media left a sour feeling in the local private press that hardly gets a week’s expenses covered by the meager financial aid package paid by the regime in the name of State subvention. The regime is notorious for awarding huge multi-million dollar contracts to European PR cabinets to clean the dirty linen of the President.
A major take-home message from this cable is the conclusion that Mr. Biya is prone to “react more forcefully to external criticism”. This exhaustively explains the panicky run to buy space in foreign media in the aftermath of this big spending scandal. The president’s endless trips abroad have always been a popular topic in the independent press, but reports hardly focused on the cost of these pleasure forays. The President once openly admitted to a friend that he prefers the calm luxurious retreat of the Swiss Inter-Continental Hotels for his official work earning the facility the fame of being called Mr Biya’s first home in independent media in Cameroon.
Continue reading below for the full unedited version of the cable as published by Wikileaks.
Subject: The Internationally Lampooned Biya Vacation
Classified By: PolOff Erik Martini Summary
President Paul Biya's recently completed expensive vacation to France drew criticism and an extended media battle in Europe and Cameroon. Rather than refute the allegations and let the story die, the GRC lashed out with tit-for-tat planted stories and accusations of an unpatriotic press. The episode reinforces the image of President Biya as corrupt and out of touch with his people, and highlights the government,s disturbing tendency to associate press criticism with instability and disloyalty. End summary.
The French Press Breaks the Story
President Paul Biya observed the traditional vacation month of August by spending three weeks at the trendy French Atlantic seaside resort of La Baule. Beginning on August 28, three French media outlets, Radio France Inter, Radio Fidelite Nantes, and Ouest France reported that President Biya and his entourage had booked 43 rooms in two luxury hotels for 20 days at approximately $60,000 a night for a total expense of $1.2 million. Online journals, such as afrik.com, piled on, pointing out the price tag didn,t include the chartered jet, shopping, spa sessions, and casino nights. The story became front page news in several local Cameroonian print papers. Coverage was almost wholly negative, pointing out Cameroon's recent status as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country and resurrecting a recent accusation by a Catholic NGO that Biya has ill-gotten wealth stashed in France. The CPDM Doth Protest Too Much
After the story broke in France and Cameroon, a response appeared in "La Baule" a French free monthly paper with a reported circulation of about 40,000. The editor, Yannick Urrien, compared the journalists breaking the story to prostitutes, questioned the accuracy of the story, and claimed Biya's vacation was within his right as a head of state. The government-controlled Cameroon Tribune followed with articles placed by the Communications Secretary of the ruling Cameroon People,s Democratic Movement (CPDM) Jacques Fame Ndongo, Deputy Secretary General of the CPDM and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Gregoire Owona, and Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary. Ndongo compared the story to the pointless medieval debate on the sex of angels and glowingly defended Biya, claiming he worked while on vacation. The Communications Minister triumphantly highlighted Biya's defense in Urrien's paper and said Biya had a right to his vacation. Tchiroma also said the French press was destabilizing and manipulating the Cameroonian public. Another Tribune article, entitled "Sovereignty," accused journalists of being unpatriotic and stated that such foreign interference would destabilize Cameroon. The Story Stays Alive
The government and private press have continued to trade stories since August 29. A diaspora group called the "Cameroonian Association of the Loire Atlantique" (L'Amicale des Camerounais du Departement de la Loire-Atlantique) published on September 7 an exhaustive defense of Biya's vacation in the Tribune, comparing it to President Obama's vacation at Martha's Vineyard. In response, a story from September 10 in the independent Cameroonian paper La Nouvelle Expression stated that President Obama paid for his vacation out of his own pocket, spent only one week, and stayed in his own country. Comment
President Biya has been criticized in the past for spending significant time out of the country; in the past two months, he has taken a trip to Geneva and two trips to France (though one was an official visit). The current scandal has taken on a new tone by focusing on the expense rather than Biya's absence. The GRC's panicked response, including ham-fisted efforts to plant articles from French "media" and the Cameroonian diaspora, allowed the story to continue well past Biya's return to Cameroon and demonstrates the regime's tendency to react more forcefully to external criticism. The Biya regime has never clarified the exact cost of the trip, only noting parenthetically that five people accompanied Biya, plus security personnel. If true, Biya,s $60,000 per day stay in France at the expense of the Cameroonian people is appalling, given the corruption, poverty, and growing economic problems he left at home (Ref). Just as worrisome is the penchant for the government, especially the Communications Minister, to equate opposition and criticism with destabilization and a lack of patriotism. End Comment.
This message was cleared with Embassy Paris POL Section.