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Africa's journalists battle uphill to get and keep press freedoms

One of Nigeria's leading journalists, Dele Giwa, editor of Newswatch, was assassinated last month by a car bomb - a few days after being interrogated by the state security service. Investigations have so far failed to turn up his assassin. In Zimbabwe, Clive Wilson, editor of the only independent newspaper, the Financial Gazette, has been accused by the information minister of allowing his weekly to be ``manipulated'' by the British Embassy.

These are just two recent examples of the difficulties journalists face in trying to maintain a free press in Africa. Despite a tradition of independent-minded reporters and publishers willing to risk imprisonment and fines, Africa is a continent where complete freedom of the press is virtually nonexistent.

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This is not new, since, under centuries of colonial rule, few African countries were allowed to have what the West considers a free press -- newspapers allowed to criticize rulers without censorship.

Post-colonial Africa has shown little progress toward breaking with that past. But such a blanket description of the state of the news media requires some important qualifications. There have always been some African countries where independent newspapers, despite periodic clampdowns after leadership successions, have flourished and the spirit of free journalism has not been extinguished.

Military rule, Giwa's assassination, and a recent period during which a number of leading journalists were imprisoned, have not kept Nigeria from having an array of lively newspapers.

By contrast, Ghana, which was the first African country to free itself from colonialism and which has an even older tradition of press freedom than Nigeria, still makes life very difficult for critical journalists. Independent-minded newspapers are frequently closed down but, surprisingly, seldom die.

``It is very unfortunate,'' says Elizabeth Ohene, the first woman editor of a newspaper in Ghana, ``that so many governments in Africa believe that journalists should be part of the political process.... This is dangerous both for government and the press, because the people need to know that, in the last resort, they can turn to the press to defend them against official abuses.''

By far the most lively press in sub-Saharan Africa is in Senegal, which has 62 newspapers that range from right-wing to Marxist. The newspapers reflect the great diversity of the country's 17 political parties. Botswana, another sub-Saharan multi-party democracy, also allows the publication of opposition papers, but they are severely handicapped by a lack of economic resources.

Sudan, the latest country to crawl out from under military rule, is now witnessing a return of independent newspapers that reflect the country's wide variety of political opinions, from fundamentalist Muslims to the Communist Party.

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Kenya has a diversity of papers. Though nominally free, they survive only if their editors stick to certain unwritten rules -- such as abstinence from criticizing the ruling party's policies. Other countries, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, tolerate opposition newspapers, but they are subject to periodic clampdowns.

South Africa had long enjoyed an outstanding reputation as a country with a flourishing free press limited only by the ability of opposition groups to finance newspapers. But after 35 years of slow strangulation of press freedom, the apartheid regime finally resorted to draconian press censorship last November, when it imposed a blanket ban on the reporting of unrest except under official supervision.

Journalists, photographers, and electronic media workers were prohibited from entering any ``emergency area where unrest prevails.'' This sweeping restriction was applied equally to local journalists and foreign correspondents. But even before the measures were introduced, political pressure had led to the closure of the Rand Daily Mail, a paper with a reputation for fearless criticism and the only white-owned paper that had the confidence of the black community.

A few journalists who had worked on the paper refused to accept defeat. They scraped together enough capital from their savings to launch the Weekly Mail, which, though its circulation remains small, has begun to emerge as a worthy successor to the Rand Daily Mail.

``If you think of press freedom as we know it in the West, it exists almost nowhere in Africa. Journalists operate under extreme difficulties, they are underpaid and insecure in their jobs. Newspapers are forced to practice self-censorship in order to survive,'' says Alan Pearce of the London-based International Press Institute, which monitors the state of press freedom around the world. ``The situation seems to be getting worse rather than better in most countries,'' he adds.

In a great majority of African nations, the only newspapers that exist are under direct government ownership or control. They enjoy little public esteem and are treated by readers for what they are -- government organs. In Ethiopia, for example, the Ethiopia Herald is known as the Daily Mengistu, after Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the military ruler.

The IPI, whose membership includes editors from leading papers around the world, is leading a vigorous campaign in support of expanding press freedom in Africa and elsewhere. The fact that many of its members come from the third world gives the IPI authority when it takes up the cases of newspapers in jeopardy and journalists who have been imprisoned. The campaign is supported by Amnesty International, which is actively seeking the release of imprisoned journalists.

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