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Democracy Gains Helps Press In Africa

August 7, 1991

LOME, Togo (AP) _ This West African nation’s biggest independent newspaper, Courrier du Golfe, got no response when it asked the government for permission to begin publishing again. So it went ahead anyway.

The case is an example of the new daring of journalists in a growing number of African countries, where longtime restrictions on press freedom have been lifted or simply ignored as authoritarian regimes give way to more democratic governments in the post-Cold War era.

In some cases, opposition groups have started their own publications. Most of the groups advocate multiparty democracy but have staked out few ideological positions beyond calls for honest government and new leadership.

In Togo, President Gnassingbe Eyadema had shut down Courrier du Golfe several times for articles critical of his government.

Then the government promised to reinstate press press freedoms - but ignored the newspaper’s request to start up again. The newspaper proceeded, and now Eyadema finds himself lambasted or lampooned in a dozen papers.

Courrier du Golfe, which does not support any party or candidate, has carried sharp attacks on the president, including a headline that referred to him as ″an assassin″ for allegedly killing opponents.

In the more flamboyant weekly La Parole, Eyadema is portrayed as a pharaoh.

Despite the new freedom, the editor of Courrier du Golfe, Rico A. Tettekpoe, still looks over his shoulder. In December he and publisher Koffi Kpe Homawood took refuge in the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Center to avoid arrest. They were allowed to remain until Togolese authorities guaranteed their safety.

A month later, they were brought to court twice for ″insulting the army″ by publishing allegations that the military had killed opponents of the government last year.

The court actions were abandoned a day before proceedings were to begin.

″They had to call it off when thousands of people threatened to go on strike,″ Tettekpoe said in an interview.

In the neighboring West African state of Ivory Coast, a vigorously independent press has appeared in the past year. But in July a manager at the newspaper Liberte, Jacques Kacou, and reporter Georges Koffi were sentenced to three months in prison for insulting President Felix Houphouet-Boigny in a story headlined: ″Look Out Houphouet Has Lost His Mind.″

The wave of demands for democracy that is sweeping the continent has shaken the foundation of how governments control the flow of information, a key element of one-party rule.

The lifting of press restrictions and legalization of opposition parties has also made it easier for foreign correspondents to visit and report on politics.

Adam Finestein, managing editor of the International Press Institute in London, said in a telephone interview, ″The general picture is a mixed one with the countries that were doing well ... falling behind on the press freedom front. The ones that before were completely stifled are starting to produce some independent papers not of high journalistic quality but certainly (with) an investigative daring.″

He cited Sudan and Kenya as examples of countries where once-free journals have been shackled.

Peter Kariethi was the editor and publisher of the weekly Financial Review when he fled Kenya to avoid arrest for criticizing President Daniel arap Moi.

″While the press in other countries is venturing into new experiences the Kenyan press is fighting to recapture lost territory,″ he said.

Kariethi, now a professor of journalism at American University in Washington, said the press was considered an important instrument of state policy in much of Africa.

″Its main role was to help shape public opinion in support of the government policy,″ he said. ″Any criticism allowed the press was to question the manner lower-level officials implemented the policies and not to question the policies or the programs themselves or their foundation.″

In Zaire, where editors once feared torture if they offended President Mobutu Sese Seko, newspapers have become audacious critics of Mobutu since censorship was lifted in April 1990.

Elima, a newspaper that once supported Mobutu, now calls for his resignation and a dozen new publications feature stories and cartoons that hammer at Mobutu and his associates for allegedly raiding the nation’s treasury and killing opponents.

Mobutu appears largely unconcerned. Few of the papers are sold outside the capital of Kinshasa, and as in many African nations the literacy rate is low.

Most people rely for news on radio or televison, both still controlled by the government.

In other recent press developments:

-Benin, which had 12 newspapers when it became the first African country to hold a national conference that led to the ouster of a one-party ruler, has seen 40 papers sprout up within the past 18 months.

-In Chad, desktop publishing has made it possible for independent papers like N’djamena-Hebdo to flourish. It sells 12,000 copies weekly - a huge circulation for one of the world’s poorest nations.

-In Mali, like Chad is an impoverished Sahel nation on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, small independent papers are overtaking the circulation of official papers, said Finestein. The number of newspapers rose from four in 1989 to 12 in 1990.

-In formerly Marxist Angola, the media is still controlled by the state. But since the government signed a peace accord with the nation’s rebels, newspapers have begun to give the movement wide coverage.

-The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization once advocated licensing of journalists and supported Third World efforts to restrict Western reporting but recently sponsored a meeting on ways to promote the independent press.

Conference delegates reported that 17 journalists were in African prisons as of June 1991. Experts say the number is far fewer than in previous years but no exact figures are available.

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