|The Courier N° 134 - July - Aug 1992 - Dossier A fresh look at Africa? - Country Reports Grenada- Seychelles (EC Courier, 1992, 104 p.)|
|Dossier: A fresh look at Africa?|
A pledge and an agent of democracy
by Diane SENGHOR
Barely three years ago, the press in French-speaking Africa was a sorry spectacle, a media desert from coast to coast and only one or two oases.
The average was just one daily paper per country, occasionally with a companion weekly, and in some places (Chad and Guinea Bissau) none at all. Print runs, at 5 000-20000 copies, were pathetic. Things were slightly better in the Maghreb and the English-speaking parts of the continent largely because of higher population densities. Indeed, Englishspeaking Africa has 78 dailies and 165 periodicals, with Nigeria's 'Daily Times', for example, running to 400 000 copies. But the most important thing in almost every case was that newspapers were State organs and usually run like a government department, sometimes with the Minister of Information as editor and civil servants as journalists. It comes as no surprise that the readers lost interest -even when distribution was free with in the administration-for these papers did no more than reflect the Governments' views and policies. They chronicled their words and deeds.
Since the early 1980s, an independent press has mushroomed. It began in Senegal and Benin, it spread and now there are independent newspapers in almost every country. In the Maghreb, for example, Algeria has 14 dailies and 52 weeklies and Tunisia 14 dailies and five weeklies.
But the biggest change is in Frenchspeaking Africa-although of course it had the most ground to make up. Mauritius may pride itself on having the oldest French newspaper in the world, but the former French colonies' tradition of a free press has ended since they became independent. This is in contrast with what happened in the English speaking countries where leaders, in Ghana and Nigeria for example, like Gandhi in India, founded their nationalist struggles on a free press, even if they did let it slide afterwards.
In French-speaking Africa, there are many examples of the press having recently burst into life, arousing an unexpected number of readers. By 1990, Senegal had more than a dozen independent newspapers and Benin 20. Mali's 'Les Echos', founded in 1989, had increased its print-run tenfold, from 2000 to 20 000, by the end of 1990, despite the advent of two more independent papers, 'Cauris' and 'Aurore' (which has trebled its sales). And the same goes for Niger's 'Haské', which started up in 1990.
These papers are a vital contribution to the move towards democracy in so many of the countries of Africa today, where, despite harrassment, intimidation and even occasional persecution, they have helped set the process up. Benin's 'Gazette du Golfe', followed by other papers, is a fine example. In almost all the French-speaking countries, institutional changes have been preceded by the emergence of a free press. In Mali, 'Les Echos' and 'Aurore' heralded the national conferences. In Togo and Cameroon, 'Le Courrier du Golfe' and 'Le Messager' are still the only vehicles of critical, pluralist expression.
There are partisan papers, of course, but they have so few readers that the people who run them pass on their messages through other people's columns. Most private papers are independent, yet they involve themselves in political discussion, triggering and broadening the debate. First of all-and this is one major reason for their success - they question and investigate the everyday running of national affairs, which can sometimes be a two-edged sword. In December 1990, for example, Babacar Touré, the head of 'Sud-Hebdo' in Senegal, was charged when he published an enquiry into corruption in the Supreme Court. His case was dropped and the affair was swept under the carpet, but top officials in Gambia and Zimbabwe have been taken to court.
But government decisions and even development strategies are areas where the independent press is now beginning to have influence. In October 1990, the Malian Government threatened to prevent non-tax-paying parents from enrolling their children in school-and this was shortly before UNICEF held its Children's Summit in New York with Moussa Traoré as one of the vice presidents - but 'Les Echos' alerted national and international opinion and the decree was not applied. Slowly but surely, the independent press is also shaping and expressing public opinion on social issues and taking a stand on social behaviour, discussing such things as the environment, demography and AIDS- to which 'Les Echos', for example, devoted an article explaining how to use condoms.
These newspapers are the place for political and social ideas long kept hidden. But they are also-and above all - an opportunity to broadcast the opinions of social groups whose concerns even the opposition parties fail to consider. So they maintain a form of pluralism which means far more than even a multiparty system and can thus be a genuine counter-balancing power for society.
Witches round the cradle
But they are already under threat. In Benin, fewer than half a dozen of the original 20 are still coming out on time. Senegal's 'Sud-Hebdo' has had to slim down from 12 pages to eight and 'Wal Fadjri' has gone from magazine to tabloid. Who is threatening them?
Most of the States now proclaim their devotion to pluralism. When their constitutions were adopted, they recognised freedom of opinion and expression (though not always freedom of the press as such), rights enshrined in the African Human Rights Charter to which most of the African nations subscribe.
Some countries (Senegal, Benin and Cape Verde) already have higher communications councils, independent bodies responsible for such things as monitoring the pluralism of the press, be it State or private, and sometimes for settling disputes.
But laws and policy, and the hard facts, can sometimes be worlds apart. It is not so long since the editor of a Nigerian magazine was killed by a parcel bomb. In Kenya, Mr Imanyara, editor of the 'Nairobi Law Monthly', is still in prison without trial. In Cameroon, 'Massager' boss Pius N'Jawe only had his passport returned in April 1991 after pressure was brought to bear by the United Nations and he is still under surveillance.
The economic threat is more insidious than the threat to the journalists. Papers in the English-speaking parts of Africa are often financed by businessmen from home or abroad (the Aga Khan and Robert Maxwell in Kenya, for example), but the free press in the French-speaking parts tends to be set up by journalists or cooperatives whose financial problems are worsened by their inability to get any of the dwindling number of bank loans. For neither State nor banks see information as a priority.
One of the biggest items independent papers have to underwrite is production, particularly printing. Few of them have their own print shops and State printers can sometimes be tempted to exert pressure by, say, failing to stick to deadlines, while local private printers may ask too high prices. Niger's 'Haské', for example, finds it cheaper and more reliable to have its printing done in Benin, despite the transport costs.
Also, paper may be rationed. Even when it is available, it is heavily taxed and costs small publications large amounts.
A UNESCO study run in January 1991 at the Institut Panos' request suggests that the alternative would be to set up a purchasing centre for paper and other printing products. And printing could best be done if several independent publications bought and ran a print shop between them. In Senegal, for example, the big four independent newspapers have bought up the Grande Imprimerie Africaine (although it needs to be rehabilitated).
The expense and difficulty of distribution
Distribution by authorised delivery services adds a lot to the costs-ADP in Senegal and Edipress in Côte d'Ivoire, both subsidiaries of NMPP (Nouvelles Messageries de la Presse Parisienne, itself a subsidiary of Hachette), take 35-40% of the cover-price of a paper.
Independent papers sometimes (when not forced to do otherwise) run their own distribution, thus providing earnings for young paper-sellers, who get 10% of the price.
Little advertising revenue
Advertising accounts for as much as 90% of a paper's income in the North, but usually barely 10% in French-speaking Africa. This is because there are not many advertisers (manufacturers of beer, washing powder and cigarettes, plus State companies and private establishments are almost the only ones) and product promotion strategies still make little use of publicity in the press, because economic operators are afraid of compromising themselves if they use what the authorities consider to be critical publications.
Limited income, usually no more than sales receipts, combines with expensive production and distribution costs to make the economic health of the independent paper a problem. Although various States encourage (or tolerate) the free press, they rarely offer the economic incentives that are a feature of some countries in the North. France and Sweden, for example, provide postal concessions and tax exemption and have a loan fund to help with the modernisation of small papers. This is vital to the development of information, but none of the African countries, other than Senegal and Algeria, have equivalent arrangements.
In Algeria, journalists working for the State press who want to move to a private paper have their salaries paid for two years. The State also helps these private publications buy paper and gives them access to the national printing works.
Senegal set up a press aid fund in 1990 and the country's four biggest independent papers have received CFAF 30 million.
Would it not be wise to start by looking after the national press and protecting local press firms? Senegal does not seem to think so, for it sold the country's big printing works to the Hersant (France) group for a symbolic one franc and then authorised the founding of an evening daily paper. Are independent papers and even the national daily able to withstand competition of this sort?
Training for managers and retraining for journalists
Professional editors of private papers have no experience of business management, be it finance or staff. Their administration often falls short and they know it -and grumble about it. Their journalists have had the wrong sort of university training and, the biggest drawback, worked for State papers which did nothing to prepare them for a new style of reporting and as a result they tend to prefer editorial writing to investigation.
Essential support from abroad
External support is still needed to allow the independent press to consolidate and develop.
International cooperation, be it bilateral or multilateral or non-governmental, has been miserly about support for communication and information so far. UNESCO itself, albeit supposedly a specialist, channels less than 5% of its budget into the sector.
Most international aid from the different funders has gone into State media, primarily for technical infrastructure (printing works and transmitters) and for (not always the right sort of) training. The first decisive support for the in dependent press came from NGOs and associations (the Ford Foundation, the Friederich Ebert Foundation and the Institut Panos), despite their limited finances.
The official view of most aid agencies now is that pluralism in information is one of the conditions of democracy. The OECD has said so and the World Bank stated this in its report for 1990. The UNDP recently (in its 1991 Human Development Report) suggested a list of human freedom indicators which included freedom of opinion and expression and independence of the written press and of radio and television.
The aid agencies, particularly the bilateral ones, are still very limited in what they do. Denmark, with its democracy support fund in DANIDA, is pointing the way, but it is an isolated example as yet.
Is multilateral aid any more adventurous? The Institut Panos and the West African Journalists Union (UJAO) ran a conference on pluralism of the press in French-speaking Africa in January 1991 and, in May, UNESCO and the UN followed it with an Africa-wide seminar in Windhoek (Namibia), where recommendations were discussed. But what will become of them with no commitment from the States and organisations in support of the initiative?
Multipartyism or pluralism ?
There are aid agencies which are or have been tempted to tie their aid to democracy- yet another burdensome condition, but is it one to complain about this time, given that it helps push the African States towards a multiparty system?
It would be difficult to hide the fact that old habits die hard or that vested interests play a big part in the-albeit multiparty - elections. Or that the different social classes, particularly the youngsters who demonstrate in the streets, still do not really identify with political parties, whichever they are. A multiparty system cannot just reallocate power among the elite. It has to be at one with pluralism if it is to be a proper guarantee of democracy-and being satisfied with just preserving appearances will do nothing but harm. This goes for radio and for television too. D.S.