The Cameroon government has defended the arrest of a journalist who accused military forces of responsibility for the recent killing of American missionary Charles Wesco last month, reasserting that it was separatist ammunition found in his head and body.
Cameroon Minister of Communications Issa Tchiroma Bakary issued a lengthy statement Thursday, providing more details about the death late last month of the Indiana Baptist missionary, who the United States government believes was caught in "crossfire" in ongoing conflict between the Cameroon army and English-speaking separatist forces in the northwest Anglophone region.
The statement was issued in response to international advocates who have criticized the government for arresting journalist Mimi Mefo Takombo, the English desk editor and journalist for Equinoxe Television, this week for reporting that the Cameroon army killed Wesco.
The journalist is being held at New-Bell Central Prison in Douala and has been charged with "dissemination of fake news," and "news lies likely to harm public authorities or national cohesion" — crimes punishable under Cameroon criminal code section 113 that bars the "propagation of false information."
She was also charged with "incitement to revolt against the Government and Institutions of the Republic."
Bakary repeated the government's previous claims that "terrorists" were on the move to attack a university in Bamenda and a military brigade at around 10 a.m. on Oct. 30 when Wesco, a fellow missionary, his wife and child were driving to go shopping in a rural area just outside of Bamenda.
Previous reports had indicated that bullets struck the car and killed Wesco, while others in the vehicle survived. According to Bakary's statement, Wesco "received a 12-gauge oblique bird-shot fired by a sneaky terrorist."
"Several pellets reached the victim at the parietal level of his skull, one below the lower right jaw and the last one at the level of his shoulder," the statement explains. "He eventually succumbed to his wounds."
The government said that Wesco's body was subject to investigation by police forces and his remains were then transferred to a hospital, where an autopsy was performed in the presence of Cameroonian and American forensic doctors, a U.S. Embassy representative and the commissioner to the Yaoundé Military Court.
"During the autopsy, the pellets extracted from the remains confirmed that the shots that killed Reverend Charles Truman Wesco did indeed come from a 12-gauge weapon which is, as we know, used by the secessionist terrorists operating in the North-West and South-West regions," Bakary asserted. "The impacts left by the shots were effectively located in the right parietal part of the skull, the right face and the right shoulder of the victim; all things that confirm the position of the shooter stationed on the right side of the vehicle, a position occupied by the terrorists at the time of the incident."
Bakary went on to condemn Takombo's tweet from Oct. 30. The post reads:
"Bambili in pictures! Doors destroyed, houses ransacked, animals killed. It has the picture of a war zone, where civilians are caught by 'stray bullets,' targeted killings. A missionary has died today after he was shot by soldiers. A source on the ground confirmed the information."
Bakary accused the journalist of "altering the reality of the facts" and "spreading manifest untruths." Bakary said Takombo's claims were "highly detrimental to the morale of the troops" in their "loyal and legal fight against criminal hordes with a secessionist agenda."
Takombo's arrest has drawn the ire of international advocates, such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
"Cameroon cannot be allowed to suppress coverage of unrest in its western, Anglophone regions by detaining journalists like Mimi Mefo. She must be released immediately," CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said in a statement. "The charge of publishing information that infringes on territorial integrity is a laughable smokescreen for censorship, plain and simple."
Libom Li Likeng, Cameroon's telecommunications minister, told Voice of America that propagation of false information on social media is punishable by six months to two years in prison and a fine that could range from $8,000 to $16,000.
Takombo's arrest comes as other journalists have been detained for several weeks.
Wesco is survived by his wife, Stephanie, and eight children. The Wescos sold most of their possessions in the United States and moved to Cameroon last month to serve as missionaries sent by the Believers Baptist Church in Warsaw, Indiana.
An online fundraising page benefiting the family has raised over $100,000 in nine days.
Stephanie Wesco and her children arrived safely back in the United States this week, according to an update from the GoFundMe page's organizer, Matthew Barnes.
"It was my high honor and privilege to assist in picking up the Charles-Stephanie Wesco family at the airport this evening," he wrote in the update. "The Wesco family are modern day heroes of the faith."
The family will hold a funeral for Wesco next Monday at Community Baptist Church in South Bend, Indiana.