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The Fourth Estate in the Third World

By Joanmarie Kalter

 

LIKE SO MUCH FOREIGN reporting, this story has its starting point in a noisy, crowded and smoke-filled journalists' bar. This one is in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and its name is the Quill. It was there that I engaged a Zimbabwean journalist in a troubling discussion of press freedom — and of its limits in a developing country. I was startled that he accepted so calmly having been fired for a piece that he said drew unwanted attention to the legendary chief of the country's minority tribe. "If I had known what the reaction would be. I never would have done it," he said simply. Then, with a shrug, he added: "You must understand. The government here just wants to keep order and get on with the task of development."

Indeed, not many Westerners do understand the particular economic and political constraints that bedevil the press in Third World countries. Their young governments are frail, and the economic development their people so desperately need depends on a degree of stability. They have neither the economic base to support an independent press nor a tradition of individual civil liberties to nourish it. And if their governments are often quick to impose editorial controls, it is because they know full well the press's power and have good reason to fear it. Newspapers have been used to topple young governments — either by hostile parties within a country or by foreign governments without.

Take none of this as an apology for repressive regimes. Ultimately, I believe, the young journalist at the Quill Club, in accepting press restraints for the good of his country, is doing it harm. In the Third World, a severely restrained press can restrain development, while an open and independent press can help it along. Nowhere does freedom of the press exist as an absolute, of course, yet nowhere is it absolutely without merit.

Westerners judge the press in the Third World according to their own ideological bents. Progressives tend to defend the restraints of a country like Nicaragua, whose left-wing government is besieged by raids from neighboring Honduras and targeted by the CIA for destabilization. This apparently excuses the fact that the stridently anti-Sandinist La Prensa has been shut for brief periods by the government and subjected at times to rigorous state censor. Such defenders forget, however, that La Prensa helped overthrow the hated Somoza; its editor was killed by a Somocista. And conservatives can be even more unbalanced. They rush to condemn such press restraints in a fever of indignation, complaining long and loud when controls have been excercised by a left-wing government, and not at all when imposed by a right-wing regime. They would have you think that Castro quashed a spirit ot dissent that had nourished under Batista.

Nor are press standards in the Third World itself exactly rigorous and impartial. Justin Nyoka. Zimbabwe's director of information, actually ventured the definition: "Positivity is news; negativity is not news." A Kenyan journalist described his newspaper's role as "nation-building." No doubt both would subscribe to the latest in international communications circles, "development journalism." In this view, the press is not an independent agent, hut a force in the Third World's war for economic survival: it's role is to help forge a common national identity out of disparate ethnic groups, and to marshal public support for the country 's development battles. If its style and content are controlled by the government, well, so is the press of any democracy during time of war.

Too often, though, it is not economic survival at stake, but the survival of the regime in power. As the country's problems become harder to control, the government controls the reporting of them instead. News of a bad harvest is said to sap morale, and news of the activities of the opposition to endanger security. The government can legally confiscate, suspend, or ban newspapers in two-thirds of African countries, in all Asian countries and in more than half of Latin America. The result: as the need for a national debate sharpens, the news becomes more bland. The front page carries homilies against public drunkenness and sounds a cheerleading chorus for the latest government "success."

Yet conditions in the Third World do make an open press problematic. Many developing countries simply have no tradition of one; the papers of the colonial days served only the colonials, and barely bothered with the concerns or viewpoints of the majority. Even more important, their struggles for independence were born not out of civil-libertarian concerns but out of nationalistic fervor and a dire need for economic redress. Criticism of the new government thus seems less like the healthy reflex of a vigorous press than like an obstructing jab at the will of the people. "Who am I to undermine a government the people fought fifteen years for?" asked a journalist for a Third World news service in New York.

So it is not surprising that even where nationalist papers have played a crucial role in the fight for political freedom, the new government, once in power, proves no champion of press freedom. Patrice Lumumba ran one of the Congo's principal papers — until independence, when as the country's first prime minister he wielded a heavy hand against the news. Kenneth Kaunda. leader of Zambia, lauds South African journalists who criticize their government, yet he took control of Zambia's papers and fired those editors and reporters who displeased him.

Three years after independence, reporters in Zimbabwe feel that the worst offense is to be unpatriotic. The danger is that this soon becomes a prescription for self-censorship. "No one wants to be accused of embarrassing the government," says a writer for the Sunday Mail in Harare. "So you try to avoid controversy. The problem is. after a while, you don't know what the hell is controversial anymore."

 

CRITICS IN THE WEST often misunderstand the role of government ownership of the press in the Third World. The state that buys out a paper is seen to have "seized" it, the way pirates would storm a ship and throw virtue overboard. Yet in some developing countries, the soaring cost of newsprint (often entirely imported), the huge illiteracy rate and the narrow advertising base all conspire to make government ownership a necessity. Where papers can remain private, they are often largely subsidized by government ads. The media simply cannot function as an economically viable industry. And what some people see as political maneuvering is mere economic reality. The choice in many of these countries is not between private versus government ownership, but between a government-owned press and no press at all.

When Zimbabwe became independent, its five papers were controlled by the Argus Company of South Africa, and the only news agency was owned and managed by the South African Press Association. Yet when Argus agreed to sell its shares, the only interested takers were two British companies, a multi-national and still another South-African firm. Finally, in order to insure at least domestic control of its press, the Zimbabwe government appointed some prominent citizens to a new "mass media trust," and with an $8 million grant from Nigeria, the trust soon bought both the news service and the 45 percent South African share of the papers. The move was widely criticized in the West as an encroachment on press freedom, but how different is it, Zimbabweans want to know, from the public's ownership of the BBC, or that of Agence France-Presse, which receives 58 percent of its revenue from the government?

Government ownership does not necessarily doom the press to terminal sycophancy. In Zimbabwe's case, the press is evolving, with instances of the best and worst in journalism played out with the passing days. On a Saturday morning in June 1982. the main road leading in and out of the city of Bulawayo. home and heartland of Joshua Nkomo. the opposition political leader, was blocked by a line of army tanks. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms demanded the identification of all who passed. Homes were searched and some of those interrogated were beaten. The move was ostensibly designed to rout out the "dissidents" who had been robbing travelers and to scare off their sympathizers. But the people of Bulawayo, angry and humiliated, read another message into it: "Mugabe (the prime minister) wants to crush us," many told me. It was all the more surprising then, to read the local papers in the days that followed. "Most people seem to support the measures that have been taken," said the Bulawayo Chronicle. An unnamed resident was quoted as saying: "The road blocks are very welcome. . . . But I feel the road blocks are not enough. They should also carry out house-to-house searches."

Still, other factors come into play to loosen the controls of a government-owned press. Embarrassing news, after all. does find its way into Zimbabwe's papers. When angry citizens charged favoritism in the assigning of new houses, for instance, their complaints became front-page news. The reason may be the subtle pressure of Zimbabwe's elite, many of whom returned to the country upon independence, highly educated and thoroughly familiar with Western press values. In Nigeria's case, its press is one of the most open in the Third World because power bases are decentralized. Papers owned by the federal government compete with those owned by state governments. And a rather independent judiciary can protect them from encroaching officials at either level.

The press of the early United States was certainly not immune to direct government interference either, and probably could not have survived without the government's financial support. As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson handpicked the editor of the National Gazette, one of his party's papers, to drum up support among the scattered and unorganized citizens. The editor's salary was furnished through Jefferson's generous gift of a government job, and much of the news was provided by Jefferson himself. In 1798, the competing Federalist party decided to crack down. Under the pretense of curbing foreign agents, they passed the Alien and Sedition Laws, and seven editors — all anti-Federalists — were convicted, fined and imprisoned.

Since that time, the U.S. press has evolved with its society (though it is still far from its own ideals). Not even the staunchest free-press advocates among Third World journalists today recommend that those Western press standards be simply uprooted and transplanted to their more traditional cultures. In Pakistan, the literacy rate is less than 20 percent. "People are not sophisticated, they are apt to explode over small issues," a Pakistani reporter told me. Nor are many of the journalists sufficiently trained or temperate. The result is that an irresponsible story can trigger riots and bloodshed. In 1972, for example, after Bhutto had somewhat liberalized the press, a decision was made to make Sindhi the official language of the central province. The Indians in the region, who spoke Urdu, and who owned the local press, wrote dramatic stories proclaiming the decision to be the death of their language. In the three days of street-fighting that broke out, almost a dozen persons were killed and scores wounded — hit by stones and beaten with clubs and sticks. "It is ironic," the Pakistani journalist said, "that after all that, Sindhi is still the official language there and it hasn't harmed Urdu. Yet that is only one example of many."

 

PARTISANS OF LEFT-WING governments in developing countries cite a particularly compelling argument in defense of the need for press supervision. "Look at Chile and Jamaica and study the history there," Noel Corea. the Nicaraguan consul in New York, said recently. "Seeing what happened there, we cannot just let the papers do what they want."

Indeed, the press in those countries employed irresponsible and often invidious means to subvert popularly elected governments. Fred Landis, a consultant to former Senator Frank Church's committee investigating intelligence operations, and author of Psychological Warfare and Media Operations in Chile, 1970-1973, has noted that El Mercurio, a Chilean daily, commonly juxtaposed pictures of President Salvador Allende with unrelated headlines using the words: Soviet, communist, Marxist, violence, death. Similar techniques were employed in covering his government. As an example, Landis cites an August 1970 edition in which a photo of Minister of the Economy Pedro Vuscovic was placed beside a photo of a noose hanging over a baby's head. The headline read: "Wanted to Strangle this Baby."

In 1969, according to Landis, five executives at El Mercurio were CIA agents. Stories in the London Daily Mail and in Inquiry magazine, based on classified CIA documents, say the CIA organized a group of twenty Chilean journalists. They were used as a conduit for false stories, targeted at the military, which charged the government with constitutional violations. After the 1973 coup, this group provided all the civilian members of the military regime. And with about $1.25 billion of the CIA budget targeted for propaganda, according to Landis, the threat of foreign influence on the press of the developing world remains quite real. Nor, presumably, is the CIA the only intelligence body practicing "disinformation."

Foreign influence in Jamaica's press is less clear, but the role of one paper in sapping support for former Prime Minister Michael Manley is not. The Daily Gleaner, owned by the island's major landholding families, had long represented the planter elite of Jamaica with conservative, pro-Western but nonetheless largely balanced coverage. Founded in 1834, it had grown into such a dominant cultural institution that Jamaicans refer to newspapers generically as "gleaners." By 1976, however, when Manley, a democratic socialist, was re-elected, fault lines had appeared in the society, and the Gleaner had broken sharply with the government. In that year, Hector Wynter, a new editor, took over. And under Wynter, former chairman of the opposition party, the paper's leadership shifted from that of professional journalist to that of a professional politician.

Negative stories from the international press began to be reprinted in the Gleaner, sometimes making very spurious charges. An article in the London Daily Telegraph in the fall of 1979, written by Robert Moss, claimed there was a secret army of 5,000 Cubans inside Jamaica, and the story soon appeared in the Gleaner under the headline. "Castro Plans to Make Jamaica an English Speaking Cuba." The Jamaican government, meanwhile, insisted there were about 400 Cubans in Jamaica, working mostly as doctors, teachers and agricultural advisors — and nothing to the contrary was ever proved. When political violence could be blamed on the government or its supporters, the Gleaner commonly made it a front-page story; when Manley himself was shot at, the paper played it down, even suggesting that Manley's own supporters had staged the incident. A Gleaner columnist, John Hearne, admitted to a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, "This has been a ferocious campaign. It would be idle to pretend that there has not been a systematic attack on the government by the Gleaner."

Yet it is most significant that Manley's own former press secretary, Claude Robinson, while calling the Gleaner's coverage "unprofessional," feels that a closed press poses much greater dangers to developing countries than the excesses of an open one. Without a free flow of information, for example, a government risks losing touch with its own people and with the sources of their productivity. "Imagine," he says, "that a reporter simply goes to a village where a government minister is talking about a new fertilizer or a new dam for farmers and reports his speech: 'This is going to increase agricultural production three times. It's brought to you by the good wishes of the government, etc.' Meanwhile, the people might be saying. 'How does this work? I don't like it. I am not used to it. I have seen my father plant corn in a certain way and that is the best way.' If you do not provide access to the press for those points of view as well, you don't know there's opposition to the idea. Everyone in government sits happily, but then wonders — how come there's no more corn?"

 

IT IS OFTEN SAID that non-Western societies do not embrace the concept of a loyal opposition. But many of the journalists from those societies firmly believe that a national debate, played out in the papers, would be both possible and enriching. "The letters to the editor were a great feature in Pakistani papers in better days," said one. "People turned to them first. I really miss those letters," he added with a sigh. "They showed what talent the country has."

Reporters say that when called upon to write what will advance the government's development goals, even when worthy, they tend to lose their inspiration. The papers become sterile, dull. What is worse, the public turns away from its own press. The staffs of the Pakistani embassies in Paris and London, it is said, don't even bother with the Pakistan Times: they read foreign papers for their news. At home, people tune in to the BBC. Soon, a great cynicism and alienation grow — hardly the stuff of a strong national spirit. Yet all the while, there is a thirst for information. Occasionally wall posters in Pakistan attempt to tell another side of the story — and a whole government department has been created to whitewash them. If an irresponsible press can cause violence, these journalists warn, a society whose voices are suppressed threatens to explode all the more. And there is little historical evidence to support the theory that development goals can be more efficiently pursued with a press harnessed forthe task. In Ethiopia, Benin. Burma, and Zaire, the press is controlled while the population remains poor. In Barbados. Fiji and Venezuela, the press is robust and it hasn't hurt their economies.

Of course many factors contribute to a healthy gross national product, but it would seem that an open press can. in fact, play a positive role in development. "Development journalism" need not he used merely to rally support for the government, as its role is too often defined. It can call attention to the problems of society as targets for change. It can cover new developments in education, agriculture, industry, and communications. It can provide its readers with the information they need to use these new materials and technologies — whether they be new insecticides, hygiene techniques, lessons in carpentry or baby care — and feed news back to the country's leaders on what succeeds and fails. It can explore the experiences of other developing countries that have faced similar obstacles. In this sense, a vigorous, critical press can help spur development and forge a collective, constructive spirit. In some places, it is already happening. A story in Trinidad's Express exposed the dangerous side effects of an anti-diarrheal drug, banned in the West, yet prescribed locally for children. In Senegal, after a number of newspapers focused on the problem, a large and mismanaged government development agency was broken up and its work delegated to smaller farm cooperatives.

Few developing countries have such a press. Yet time may increase the number. New literates with more disposable income will fuel the demand for livelier coverage. Technological improvements, such as telephone networks and roads, will make the control of information much more difficult. Even during the emergency period in India, when Indira Gandhi tried to halt the flow of news, a journalist in New Delhi says he knew by the following morning of an event 900 miles to the south; word had traveled by phone and among passengers taking planes. Similarly, the increased use of broadcasting satellites will make it impossible for receiving countries to jam the news. And as control becomes more difficult, regulations will have to be eased.

The young Zimbabwean in the Quill Club has reason to hope, therefore, that with more time and progress, the developing world will shape a new and relevant brand of journalism, one based on its own needs and values, and not those of any established press. In the meantime, however, he hopes simply to be rehired as a reporter in Zimbabwean television or radio. "This country has a lot going for it, and none of us wants to leave," he says. He acknowledges the faults of Zimbabwe's press but does not share my impatience with the efforts to change them. In the developing world, he says evenly, "change takes a long time."

Joanmarie Kalter, a freelance writer in New York City, visited Zimbabwe in 1982 on a Pulitzer travelling fellowship.This article originally appeared in Quill.

 

Published in Sources, Summer 1984



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