The Fourth Estate in the Third
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers