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The African Fourth Estate

ISSUE:  Spring 1988
The African Press. By Martin Ochs. Columbia. $15.00 paper.

When independence came to Africa in the early 1960’s, the presidents and generals who took control set about to dismantle the European structures they had inherited from their colonial rulers. The first victim was the parliamentary system, as Africa’s fragile regimes knew that opposition and dissent represented a direct threat to their own survival. The second victim was the press.

Across the continent, the African media fell under state control and “news” became a tool of national development. The role of newspapers under the post-colonial leadership was not to enlighten or to stimulate honest debate; it was to act as a public-relations vehicle for the regime itself. Recalcitrant journalists were imprisoned or, as in some countries such as Uganda and Equatorial Guinea, killed.

“The educative role of the press, in the period we are now passing through, imposes on it the maximum of honesty, of loyalty, of probity in publishing information,” Morocco’s King Hassan II said in 1962. “To utilize press liberty to accumulate verbal violence . . .is not only a dishonorable act but an act of treason toward the Moroccan people.”

Though Morocco is one of Africa’s more open societies, King Hassan’s comments underscore the suspicion Third-World leaders have of the media—both their own and that represented by the ubiquitous Western foreign correspondents who seem to travel from disaster to disaster, reporting on the gloom and doom of developing nations. But whatever its shortcomings, no institution is more reflective of a society as a whole than the press, and the freedom a people have is directly related to the freedom the media has.

That is why Martin Ochs’s new book, The African Press, provides a particularly valuable contribution to understanding Africa, a continent of 51 countries that is four times the size of the United States with a population twice as large as our own. This is a region of tremendous political diversity, of 800 languages and dialects, of overwhelming economic and social problems, and Ochs manages to pull it all together admirably into a cohesive package that offers what is probably the first continental survey ever done of the African press.

Ochs, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who for the past decade has been a professor of mass communications at The American University in Cairo, does not leave us with much hope that a free press is about to take hold in Africa or that the repressive nature of so many governments on the continent is about to be reformed. In fact, after reading The African Press, one wonders if newspapers have any future in Africa at all.

The number of daily newspapers in Africa has declined from nearly 300 at the beginning of the independence era to about 150 today. Nine countries have no newspapers at all, and Botswana, a country the size of Spain, offers its people nothing more than a four-page tabloid with a circulation of 16,000. The combined circulation of all African dailies has fallen to about two million from well over three million in the past 25 years. Thus, the total circulation on a continent of 455 million people is only about two-thirds of what a single London newspaper, the Daily Mirror, sells in a day.

Ochs points out that the decline is attributable to more than repressive governments fearing questioning voices. Literacy, for instance, was only 29 percent in Africa in 1984, according to World Bank estimates. The colonial heritage prevented the emergence of a local press. Language and geographical barriers also presented obstacles to growing readership. Add to all that the heavy hand of censorship—both officially sanctioned and self-imposed by cautious journalists themselves—and what Africa has gotten, the author says, is a press that is undernourished and overcontrolled.

“The expression, “The truth shall make you free” often does not work in Africa,” said a delegate to a colloquium on the relationship between the state and the press. “The truth is more likely to put you in jail or other detention.”

In his survey, Ochs traveled extensively and in addition to overview chapters on press ownership, the new world information order, national news agencies, and the rural press, he examines the media in Tanzania, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. With the possible exception of Egypt, where reporters use self-restraint in criticizing the government, “development journalism” is about as far from journalism as we understand it in the West as Nairobi is from Dakar.

Ochs cites the lead paragraph of a story released by the Sudan News Agency (SUNA) as an example of the fuzzy line between “news” and self-serving propaganda in Africa. It said: “Conferees yesterday received with ovation and rapturous applause the President’s statement that he was optimistic that the year 1980 would be the year of petroleum production in Sudan.” President Jaafar Numeiri was the subject of seven of the 12 remaining items in that edition of the SUNA report.

The author thinks that “development journalism”—that is, mobilizing the press for national progress—is both valid and necessary in fledging African countries where development has life-or-death consequences. But to be effective, he says, it must report more than the ground-breakings and presidential speeches, for without credibility, it accomplishes little.

When Algeria ended its private and independent press, government-controlled Radio Algiers declared that the action would “end attacks on our country” and praised the move as “a great victory over hired pens, absurd tendentious propaganda” and “filthy propaganda campaigns.” That it may have accomplished, but the action did nothing to ameliorate Algeria’s economic and social problems, and from Algeria and the other countries he surveyed, Ochs correctly concludes there is an important lesson to be learned:

“The governments of Africa should concern themselves less with trying to mobilize the media to meet what are often self-serving goals and should instead focus on the immense value of a free and fully informed society.”


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