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Media : Loosening the Leash on Africa's Press : * Democracy is squelching censorship in the sub-Saharan region. But attacks on bolder publications persist.

March 17, 1992|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — To anyone impressed by the startling renaissance of the independent press in this country since multi-party democracy was legalized in December, the police raid Jan. 2 on a certain downtown printing shop had to come as a surprise.

The police struck before dawn, seizing all 30,000 copies of the Jan. 6 issue of Society magazine, due out the next day. Two Indian workers at the plant were subsequently deported as illegal aliens. Tied up in court for the next two months, Society missed eight issues.

What was striking about the raid was that the edition in question was not only more politically innocuous than most of Society's previous issues but also far milder than what Kenya's newspapers were publishing as daily fare: allegations of corruption in the government's highest reaches, speculation about President Daniel Arap Moi's political weakness--all things that would have been censored out of the press as recently as last November.

"It was the cleanest issue we've ever had," says Pius Nyamora, Society's publisher. His only guess: The police had been misled by an ambiguous headline into thinking the issue carried photographs of illicit checks written by Moi to his cronies.

For all that, the two sides of independent journalism in Kenya--the increasing freedom of a hitherto tightly controlled press and the arbitrary pressure applied by the authorities--reflect the dual trends emerging across sub-Saharan Africa.

The wave of multi-party democracy washing away a score of the continent's single-party or military regimes has brought in its wake a flowering of independent journalism.

Within months of the overthrow of Mali's military dictator, Moussa Traore (a civilian government is to be installed after elections now taking place), there were more than a dozen new dailies or weeklies for sale on the streets of the capital, Bamako. Some were little more than leaflets promoting a narrow point of view--Muslim, Christian, tribal, left or right--but they all were permitted to subject government policy to critiques that earlier had been outlawed.

Similar things have happened in Zambia, where an opposition party ousted the patriarch, President Kenneth D. Kaunda, in open elections and fired the sycophantic editors of the government-owned newspapers; Ghana, where Lt. Jerry J. Rawlings has abolished a 3-year-old newspaper licensing law; Benin, Ivory Coast, Madagascar and elsewhere.

"Now we're breathing free air," says Kwendo Opanga, a political columnist for Kenya's Daily Nation. The security police who used to follow him everywhere and try to engage him in incriminating conversations when he got tipsy in bars haven't been seen, he says, since Moi legalized the organization of opposition political parties in December.

But at the same time, many governments have stepped up the pressure. In Nigeria, whose fractious and openly partisan press could probably never be comprehensively censored, seven leading newspapers and weeklies have been forcibly closed for periods of days or weeks over the last 18 months, a period of gradual political liberalization. Many of their editors have been jailed from time to time for running controversial reports.

Zambia's new government has dusted off an old press council law originally proposed by Kaunda. Registration laws, which African journalists tend to regard as vehicles for censorship, have been proposed in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. And there are few countries in which the government has been able to resist for long the temptation to ban one or another turbulent publication.

"Freedom is a tool they don't easily understand," says Blamuel Njururi, managing editor of publisher Nyamora's Society magazine. "Politicians are used to half-truths."

Not surprisingly, an unfettered press was not among the political bequests left to newly independent African states by their departing colonial administrators, who had ruled in part by keeping public discourse under control.

At the dawn of African independence, the first generation of indigenous leaders expressed misgivings about giving an unruly press the latitude to put forward alternative versions of political truth.

Kwame Nkrumah, independent Ghana's first leader, presaged his regime's socialist tendencies by arguing that "within the competitive system of capitalism, the press cannot function in accordance with a strict regard for the facts." Even Western politicians would perhaps find that sentiment unexceptionable. But Nkrumah added:

"The press should therefore not be in private hands."

"The press is capable of making or destroying governments, given appropriate conditions," said Kaunda, early in Zambia's independence. Eventually, Kaunda proposed a government-dominated Press Council to oversee independent newspapers; he had long since brought the two major daily newspapers and its broadcasting company under state control.

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