KINSHASA, Zaire (AP) _ Two years ago, Zairian newspapers were barely allowed to mention President Mobutu Sese Seko's name. Today, they print banner headlines like ''Mobutu in Hell.''

Mobutu, who has ruled this Central African country for 27 years, freed the press as part of a pledge in 1990 to install multiparty democracy. Zaire now has more than 15 daily or weekly newspapers.

Although Mobutu has been able to slow the transition to democracy since his promise was made, the press remains unmuzzled.

A national conference on democracy was convened, but Mobutu has ignored or adjourned it when it took action he did not like. Earlier this year, soldiers killed at least 32 demonstrators who demanded the conference be reopened.

The conference has reconvened, and in May declared itself sovereign, but has yet to address the central issue of naming a transition government.

Mobutu closed universities two years ago, effectively silencing young intellectuals. He forbids large political gatherings and street demonstrations, and retains control of radio and television.

Zairians are eager for news from independent sources. Residents of Kinshasa photocopy newspapers for friends who cannot afford to buy their own. A dozen or more people often can be seen huddling around newspapers laid out on the sidewalk and held down with stones.

An aggressive, pro-democracy press also is appearing elsewhere on the continent.

''It is because of the journalists that everything has turned out so badly,'' said Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, the first leader ousted in elections after demands for democracy began in Africa three years ago.

Freddy Monsay Iyaka Duku, an editor of the newspaper Elima, said: ''It is because of us that there is a national conference now in Zaire.''

Elima's offices and printing plant were bombed twice when unpaid soldiers went on a looting spree throughout the capital in October 1991.

''The journalists themselves used to censor their own stories before they were published,'' Duku said. ''It is well-known that criticism is not well- received by the government, and you have the response,'' he said, gesturing out the window toward the bombed press building.

In 1990, Elima switched almost overnight from being Mobutu's voice to the opposition.

Soldiers harass newspaper vendors from time to time and take their papers away. Sometimes, journalists are arrested.

''When they arrest you, the first thing you must know is they are going to beat you,'' said Katambwa Mike Masiya of Umoja, one of Zaire's oldest opposition voices. Masiya said he had been arrested at least five times.

''We, as journalists, we have the duty to instruct people about what is democracy,'' he said.

Reporters and editors have been detained in Ivory Coast, Benin, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Ghana in recent months on charges ranging from sedition to insulting the head of state. In Togo, the Courier du Golfe was sacked.

Newspapers reveling in new freedoms sometimes offend more than governments.

''They're not really newspapers for the truth, they're for politicians,'' said Ngefa Atondoko, president of Zaire's Association for the Defense of Human Rights. ''They're too free and it is becoming dangerous, because at any time a journalist can put your name in the newspaper and denigrate you.''

Atondoko said his association would propose a law permitting people who have been defamed to sue.

''There is much greater freedom of the press now in Africa, but a lack of professionalism,'' said Abdoulaye Ndlaga Sylla, director of the West African Committee for the Defense Of Press Freedom in Dakar, Senegal.

''Many of these papers are just party organs. Often, when they have no information they just make things up.''