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By Charly NDIAPI FOPA, Ph.D.
Lecturer-researcher in Peace & Development Studies, Protestant University of Central Africa

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INTRODUCTION

In many African countries, 2023 is characterized by a sequence of important events in the socio-politics of myriad of States, among which is Cameroon.  Regarding this specific case, it is crucial to note that, with the signing of Decree n˚ 2023/023 of 13th January 2023 to convene the electoral college for the election of senators scheduled for 12 March 2023. Voting has yet again stirred up greed. Mindless of the fact that votes can be majoritarian, of proportional representation, mixed or from a restricted electoral college, it has been observed that since the presidential election held on 08 October 2018, votes are at the centre of crisis, rousing up instability, and are even the bedrock of violence that is observed before, during and, sometimes after elections.

However, it is realistic to agree with Richard Joseph’s observation that “you can have election without democracy, you cannot have democracy without election” (Richard 1999: 399). Contrary to what most African countries may assume on achieving a rule of law, this takes into account the constraints dictated by technological progress. Therefore, information management now constitutes fundamental indicator of a peaceful election process, nonbelligerenly accepted by both the stakeholders and their partisans or supporters.

Here is the rationale for such highly substantial awareness-raising analysis. This is geared towards suggesting a mechanism of social cohesion on the need for a consensual management of information during elections. It is significant because it aims to avoid the spread of hateful and exclusionary tendencies during elections. The ongoing analysis is based on the following problematic: Does information pollution contribute to separation of ethnic groups, exclusion or hatred and the reoccurrence of crisis and violence recorded throughout an election? Is the process of institutionalising non-violent communication a means of achieving an acceptable result of an electoral process?

An in-depth study of the main features and different trigger of information pollution observed before and during the 2018 presidential election in Cameroon is the first critical aspect of our focus (1). It is followed by a policy recommendation based on the desire to institutionalize non-violent communication that is need to consolidate socio-political stability and to foster national harmony in the country (2).

  1. Information pollution or infopollution: definition, characteristics and actors during the 2018 presidential election in Cameroon

Definition of information pollution

Information pollution, also known as infopollution, is defined as the disturbances linked to relevant information which has been contaminated by redundant, useless, unsolicited and uncontrollable information (PNUD 2022: 5). It is a political communication strategy regarding the use of existing instruments and categories of media, to ensure that the popular foundation of a political ideology is supported by a leader or through a political association.  Infopollution is a violent communication strategy observed in the domain of socio-politics by the intentional spread of doubtful messages. It is drawn-out with the purpose of destabilizing and dehumanizing political opponents by rallying the largest number of fanatic against the political grounds defended (ibid: 5-6).

In order to achieve this, the different tools of media groups used are print media, radio, television and online press. Thus, given that the volume of the information to process and release or rebroadcast is sky-rocketing, bolstered by the powerful upswings of ICT, the race for the spread of sensational information has soon become a weapon in the hands of the political elites. Theses political figures spare no effort to attract all the sympathy of fanatics and new supporters. In so doing, the following infopollution mechanisms are mobilised for their political achievements: hoaxes; other forms of information parodies; misinformation and rumours (Le Deuff 2007: 3-5).

Infopollution is then conveyed through different communication channels and the most indicative are: information overload or over information (as there is a plethora of information); misinformation (where poor information causes doubt in the process of information selection); information contamination (through hoaxes, lies and direct messages, spamming…) and advertisement abuse (ibid). In this analysis, misinformation is identified as the main engine of information pollution or infopollution.

Characteristics of misinformation

Originally, it is important to note that misinformation is an information pollution or infopollution technique that refers to the use of an armoury of avowed and occult means to influence foreign governments, discredit and deceive political opponents, especially emigrants (Cathala 1986: 21). It was a political and media instrument that was used to weaken trust between allies against Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and to distort the opponent’s appreciation of reality (ibid).

Misinformation is hence an old war technique mainly carried out by powers involved in the ideological battle during the cold war (1945-1990). Since the fall of the Berlin Wall (9 November 1989), the use of misinformation is mostly seen in the intra-state sphere. It is used by political leaders to defy adversaries and manipulate public opinion. It is akin to a provocative and misleading information displayed as truth in order to confuse the public (Grawitz 2004: 116-117).

Misinformation is generally dangerous and also considered as a crime for diverse reasons. It is an information pollution technique that is common within the socio-political sphere observed during election, either in a fragile state (the case of the 2018 presidential election in Cameroon) or in a successful state (case study of the 2020 presidential election in the United State of America-USA). It is grounded on the evident and intentional desire to pre-fabricate, distort, usurp and manipulate a public message or broadcast information. It contributes to negative transformation of the patriotic ambition through the popularization of sensational information, with the purpose of demonizing the elite and developing chaotic relations between social strata. It serves as bedrock for the development of cybercrime and, most especially, the increase of societal violence nurtured by hateful, devastating extremist and radical speeches.

In socio-political domain, misinformation comes from four main sources which favour the outbreak of crisis and violence recorded in an election process. These include: propaganda, conspiracy theory, manipulation of events and images (Cathala 1986: 21). It also helps to provoke political challengers and to politicize popular opinion. This infopollution technique is increasingly observed in the political evolution of many African countries (ibid).

The threatening nature of this technique witnessed in the course of previous presidential election in Cameroon is a warning sign and that constitute a case study of the ongoing analysis.

The 2018 presidential election and the dangerousness of infopollution

“Election are always essential to the lunching of post-conflict democracies, but they can also exacerbate competition, polarize already fractured societies, institutionalize existing imbalance of power, and as well as advance the transition from war and failure to the resuscitation and good governance” (Rotberg 2004: 39-40). This observation of Rotbert I. Robert may be considered to describe the situation in Cameroon in 2018.

The presidential election of 08 October 2018 still raises questions in the minds of many actors, regarding the general mobilization caused by the nomination of new political leaders. This election was equally characterised by a massive use of various communication tools and a rampant exploitation of social media by different candidates. In the course of the election, the use of hateful concepts was one of the aspects that appeared to local, national and international actors on the risks of political imposture. This election was hence marked by the development of hate speech illustrated through the embodiment of infopollution during elections in Cameroon (Ndiapi Fopa 2021: 615-633).

Basically, hate speech refers to a “type of message, speech or communicational signal that, beyond ordinary insult, attacks in a specific, destructive and open manner, on a person or group of people, based on various characteristics such as: their skin colour; their ethnicity; religion; language; culture …”. (Pondi 2020: 2).

Analysing the reoccurrence of hate speech mentioned by different actors during the period running from 22 September to 05 October 2018, Charles Christian Deugoué Siaga, identified 04 main categories of hate speeches from the messengers or those politically called Spin Doctors (Eyries 2013: 112). The name Spin Doctors is used to designate protagonists who usually work in the shadow of powerful persons (ibid). They prefer to keep the utmost discretion of political parties during broadcasts dedicated to the campaign of political rivals on TV sets (ibid).

The outcome of his study reveals at first sight that, the primary sources of hate speech during such broadcasts are: political figures, members of the government, scholars, TV consultants, jurists, political analysts and unidentified actors. The authors proceed by triangulating speeches through the broadcasts of the following channels: Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV), Canal 2 International, Vision 4 and Equinox TV. He reports 29 types of hate speech concepts which are divided in the following major categories: defamatory statements (12), slander, insults and invectives (7), incitement to violence (4), terrorism accusation (6).

This observation of Charles Christian Deugoué Siaga is summarised in a census table of actors and categories of hate speech, recorded during 2018 presidential election and represented hereafter:

Table No 1: Actors and reoccurrence of hate speech according to a study carried out by C. C.  Deugoué Siaga

Perpetrator of hate speechReoccurrence of hate speechValue in percentage
Political figures2243.13%
Member of Government0917.64%
Scholars0611.76%
TV Consultants0611.76%
Jurists0510.20%
Political analyst0203.92%
Unidentified actors0101.96%
Total51 100 %

Source: C. C. Deugoué Siaga (2022).

A fundamental finding arises from Charles Christian Deugoué Siaga’s observation is that, propaganda by means of hate speech in a presidential election is the work of actors from different professional strata. Hence, misinformation, (including propaganda), constitutes an indicator of political savagery and a weapon of dehumanisation at the disposal of political opponents. Pollution information via misinformation and propaganda of hate speech is an indicator of violence that people is confronted during election with major consequences on political stability and security in a national community.

To fight against misinformation, propaganda and infopollution without spreading counter-propaganda is, thus, the primary stake of social cohesion during the next elections in Cameroon, whether it is senatorial, legislative, regional or presidential. In this vein, non-violent communication (Rosenberg 2016: 25) is an option to counter the scourge known as infopollution that plagues electoral process in African countries and Cameroon particularly.

  1. Policy recommendations: non-violent communication for the consolidation of peace during election
    • To the ministry of communication and the government: the use of non-violent communication

Non-violent communication is generally associated with a language practice that reinforces our ability to preserve our values, even in demanding circumstances. It is a consolidation mechanism of social cohesion within a state and the peaceful management of conflicts or disputes lying on two main pillars in the socio-political framework.

At micro and meso-social levels, non-violent communication calls on public and private actors or members of a community for their obligation of accountability and preservation of socio-political achievements. While showing their involvement or citizenship reflected by the desire to access to the presidency.

At the macro and mega-social scales, non-violent communication serves as stepping stone for the experimentation of unconventional conflict management mechanisms. That takes into account distinctive biases of communities weakened by the violence recorded during elections, irrespective of their nature.

Putting on the mantle of member of the government and political leaders or actors nowadays requires the mobilization of different resources to conquer new voters and preserve initial fans. In a socio-political environment fragmented by violence registered throughout an election, non-violent communication being a pacific prevention strategy and consensual management of acceptable election results by both opponents and militants. Therefore, it is important for the government and, particularly the Minister of communication, to educate people on the importance of a pacific election; to sensitise citizens on the danger of hate speech and to promote non-violent communication strategies during elections in Cameroon.

  • To the National Commission on Bilingualism and Multiculturalism (NCBM): non-violent communication in action

Two important interrogations should animate all actors who resort to non-violent communication for positively and sustainably stand out in a chaotic electoral environment, flagged by the propaganda of hate speech or misinformation and infopollution. What are the particularities of a discourse or a political action that contribute to personal and community well-being? What key events or achievements of the political leaders are appreciated or not by contenders to the central power?

Non-violent communication constitutes an hypothesis to these questions insofar as it raises awareness on the emergency to institutionalise political discourse.

Firstly, it requires the rallying of energy to constructively and consensually defend a political vision that arouses empathy within other communities, either the in-group or the out-group. Winning votes in competing communities is consequently an approach of non-violent communication. Non-violent communication enables the political leaders who opts for this approach toward positively set himself/herself apart and win votes or conquer new voters or fans.

Secondly, non-violent communication sparks institutional reforms through elections in order to set the baseline for a pacific election. It is centred on the need for the self-discipline of political associations, as per the democratic centralism technique. For institutions involved in the electoral process, the latter consists in empowering leaders and political associations with the objective to walk in the path of all existing democratic deadlines provided by the current law. Thereby, ensuring their effective and possibly considerable presence within the ruling democratic institutions and improving the democratic process from the core of legislative, regional and local infrastructures.

There are many institutions engaged in the management of elections in Cameroon. Since we are confronted with the conflict in the North-West and South-West regions, the NCBM was created and, it is therefore considered as an institutional response to the warfare. In the need to consolidate peace at the national level, the NCBM is also an institution that need to be involve in the promotion of non-violent communication strategies that are important to consolidate peace at national level and particularly the warfare areas.

  • To Media/TV Organs and leaders of political parties: Sharing the experience of the NCC cafés

The choice of this institution is not insignificant. The National Communication Council (NCC) is the first regulatory organ of communication in Cameroon. It is in charge of informing sovereign institutions on the danger of misinformation, propaganda and infopollution. It also ensures the respect of rules and regulations regarding social communication, in compliance with professional ethics and integrity. Besides promoting peace ideals, democracy and human rights, NCC is equally responsible for protecting the dignity of human being, freedom, transparency, pluralism and equilibrium in the programs of communication parties, institutions or associations. This institution has been chosen within the borders of this analysis due to its pedagogic nature, and the disciplinary powers possessed vis-a-vis other communication organs or electoral institutions located in Cameroon.

In combating hate speech and violent communication spread by media during elections, the NCC suggests a reinvention of the communication strategy program identified, rightly, as a non-violent communication technique: The NCC cafés (Les Cafés du Conseil National de Communication-CNC).

On the 31 August, 02 September and 05 September 2022, successfully in Yaoundé, Douala and Bafoussam, NCC continuously organised days known as NCC Café in these different regional main capitals. Under the theme of the responsibility of the moderator in coordinating TV debates (la responsabilité du modérateur dans la conduite des débats TV), these occasions were opportunities to gather, discuss and sustain arguments between media men, experts and professionals, who share experience on carrying out positive debate during election process. The NCC cafés are thus considered as an occasion for political and media actors to be educate on how to organize constructive debates in order to reinforce peace, national cohesion and harmony in the country.

The NCC cafés are therefore a non-violent communication technic which has the holistic ability to build capacities of the media and some political actors. It positively helps to latter play the role of true actors and instruments we need for a peaceful and reconciling communication during election process. That is the reason why we strongly recommend that other institutions involved in the diverse election procedure should do the same, or even better, in promoting non-violent communication.

CONCLUSION

Electoral periods are moment of wariness, uncertainty and instability. This is it because of the stakes, interests and most especially the nature of communication propagated during the electoral period. Therefore, bringing a remedy to the dangerousness of misinformation, propaganda, hate speech and information pollution, goes through the experiencing of innovative peace tools. Non-violent communication is surely an embryonic strategy, but it guarantees the peace recorded during elections.

In Cameroon, The National Communication Council-NCC is identified as a national institution that experimenting that strategy of peaceful collaboration between political and media actors. Looking back to the higher level of danger observed during the election of 2018 mainly caused by misinformation, hate speech or other forms of information pollution, it is urgent to sensitize on the necessity to build a peaceful democracy through non-violent communication mechanisms.

That is the highest reason why it is clearly recommended in this brief that institutions and actors involved in the electoral process should be engaged in the promotion of non-violent communication strategies at local and national level.

References

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Acknowledgements

This research was conducted within the framework of the Capacity Building for the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in post-conflict societies project, funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in collaboration with African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).