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Pius Njawe, 53

Pius Njawe, African journalist who focused on corruption in Cameroon, dies at 53

Pius Njawe, above in 2001, was arrested more than 100 times for his journalism work.
Pius Njawe, above in 2001, was arrested more than 100 times for his journalism work. (Themba Hadebe/associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pius Njawe, an African journalist who braved arrest more than 100 times for reporting on corruption and other sensitive topics and gained international attention as a relentless advocate of press freedom, died July 12 in a car accident near Norfolk. He was 53.

The Cameroon native was among the most defiant independent editors and publishers in Western Africa, a region known for spawning autocratic regimes that often enforce censorship through violent intimidation.

He was reportedly in the United States to attend a forum in Washington sponsored by a Cameroonian pro-democracy advocacy group. He was traveling between Washington and the Tidewater region to visit relatives when he died.

A Virginia State Police spokesman said Mr. Njawe was a front-seat passenger in a car heading south on Interstate 664 in Chesapeake when the vehicle apparently stopped in the travel lane and was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. The cause of the accident remains under investigation.

In 2000, the Austria-based International Press Institute listed Mr. Njawe among its 50 world press freedom heroes of the past half-century. The institute called Mr. Njawe "Cameroon's most beleaguered journalist and one of Africa's most courageous fighters for press freedom."

Mr. Njawe started Cameroon's first independent newspaper, Le Messager (The Messenger), in 1979 when he was 22. The publication has targeted alleged abuses by the government of President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982.

In particular, Mr. Njawe cast a critical eye on how the country's substantial oil revenues were being pocketed by wealthy supporters of the president. He directed news coverage that questioned the finances of ranking police officials and members of the National Assembly.

The government confiscated issues of Le Messager and shuttered the newspaper's offices, headquartered in the city of Douala. Mr. Njawe received death threats, prompting him to relocate his family for a year in the Western African nation of Benin. On his return, in 1993, he started a press freedom organization in Cameroon, but he continued to be harassed.

Despite the official abolition of press censorship in 1996, Mr. Njawe was arrested the next year after reporting that Biya had collapsed while watching a soccer match. Mr. Njawe said he based his information on three witnesses, but he was charged with "spreading false news," a form of subversion.

He received a two-year sentence, later reduced to 10 months after a presidential pardon following international condemnation. He said the prison governor warned him not to chance solitary confinement by continuing to write.

"To have the privilege of writing taken away from you overnight feels like being a victim of a crime," he later wrote. "I immediately started to think about what my long days would be like in a cell I was sharing with more than 150 detainees, almost all of them crooks, if I could not write. So I decided to defy the governor's ban by stepping up my bi-weekly column, Le Bloc-notes du bagnard (the Convict's Notebook), in my newspaper, Le Messager."

Pius Noumeni Njawe was born March 4, 1957, in Babouantou, Cameroon. As a young reporter, he provoked authorities with unauthorized articles critical of the country's education system. Some landed him in jail.

While he had grown used to meager conditions behind bars -- the concrete floors, the handful of cornmeal for daily rations -- he said the 10 months he spent imprisoned in 1998 were harrowing. He said his wife, Jane, who was nine months pregnant, was beaten by guards when she brought him food. The injuries she suffered caused their daughter to be stillborn.

In 2002, Jane died in a two-car accident in Cameroon. Mr. Njawe formed an organization dedicated to promoting traffic safety in Cameroon. They had five children, but a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

In addition to starting Le Messager, Mr. Njawe also founded a satirical publication, Le Messager Popoli. He was a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington-based global network of reporters who collaborate on cross-border investigative stories.

A month before his death, he told an interviewer for the International Press Institute: "A word can be more powerful than a weapon, and I believe that with the word . . . we can build a better world and make happier people. So, why give up while duty still calls? No one will silence me, except the Lord, before I achieve what I consider as a mission in my native country, in Africa and, why not, in the world."


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