- Cameroonian Health Minister Urbain Olanguena Awono has opened an inquiry into the coverage of the Douala independent newspaper 'Le Messager' on an allegedly fake cholera vaccine distributed in the city. The angered Minister denies reports the vaccination had to be halted as the mistake was known.
'Le Messager' - Cameroon's principal private newspaper - on 18 February reported about "a false vaccine distributed to 500 Cameroonians" during an ongoing cholera epidemic in Douala, the country's largest city.
According to 'Le Messager', close to 500 people were treated with the inadequate vaccine before the authorities recognised the problem and stopped dispensing it. Health authorities however did not inform the public of the mistake that was made.
The Douala newspaper further reported that the vaccine administered to the city's citizens had a whitish colour, whereas the standard cholera vaccine is a colourless and clear liquid. The vaccine also carried a fake label identifying it as a product of the French company Aventis Pasteur.
The reporting of this news story has angered the Cameroonian Health Minister, who denies the events such as described by 'Le Messager'. Minister Awono on 19 February therefore opened an administrative and judicial inquiry into the news story, aiming at proving that the newspaper's allegations are false.
Marie-Noëlle Guichi, the author of the controversial 'Le Messager' article, told the Kinshasa-based media watchdog Journaliste en Danger (JED) that she sticks to her version of the news story. Ms Guichi said that "the information published in the newspaper is factual and verifiable. The Health Minister's criticism is unwarranted and disingenuous."
In its 20 February edition, 'Le Messager' reported on the story again, saying that "between 22 January and 3 February, entire families received a dose of this questionable product."
The Le Messager press group, directed by Pius Njawé, has been the "subject of regular attacks and harassment by the Cameroonian authorities," according to JED, which is coordinating a press freedom network in Central Africa. The group today issued an alert, saying that the new inquiry into 'Le Messager' may be a potential threat to press freedom in Cameroon
Press freedom has been under increased attack by Cameroonian authorities lately and Le Messager press group has been the target of several campaigns. In May 2003, the government prohibited the launch of the group's radio station, 'Freedom FM', just as it was about to begin broadcasting. The station has been banned ever since.
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