The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Côte d'Ivoire:
From Voice of the State to Advocate of Democracy

Chapter 1


Beyond the Litany of Limitations:
Contexts for the Emergence of
Independent Journalism in sub-Saharan Africa

To enter the newsroom of La Voie during the mid-1990s was to step into hardship. Journalists for La Voie—the most punished newspaper in Côte d'Ivoire and perhaps in all of francophone West Africa—toiled amid spare and gritty conditions, in dimly lighted offices a floor above an import-export business in a working class section of Abidjan, the country's largest city. Never very distant was the prospect of govermnent crackdown.


La Voie,1 a brash, aggressive daily close to the principal opposition political party in Côte d'Ivoire,2 is one of the hundreds of independent or nonofficial newspapers that have appeared across sub-Suharan Africa since the late 1980s and early 1990s, an emergence stimulated—but only partly explained—by the wave of democratization and political liberalization that embraced the region.


In five years after La Voie's founding in 1991, no fewer than a half dozen of its staff members were sentenced to prison for their reporting; some of them more than once. Yet the journalist, several of whom write under colorful pseudonyms such as César Etou and Freedom Neruda, soldiered on, drafting their articles longhand at tables pushed together in the shape of a giant rectangle, the dominant feature of La Voie's newsroom. A lone window air conditioner struggled against the noise from the street, where the smoke-belching, elephantine buses charged after the darting, innumerable orange-red taxis.


La Voie cannot be said to be the most respected newspaper in Côte d'Ivoire. It has been demonstrative in its partisanship, swaggering in its assertiveness. It has styled itself as a "newspaper of combat for democratic values and human rights."3 But, inarguably, the newspaper has helped broaden public consideration and discussion of issues and policies in a country where debate and dissent were long constricted by an authoritarian, single-party regime.


In the onerous conditions that have characterized its existence, in its vulnerability to official repression, and in its enduring resilience, La Voie is illustrative of both the emphases and the gaps in studies of the independent press in sub-Saharan Africa. Scholarly literature is decidedly mixed, characterized by concentrated attention to a small number of subjects, such as the frequency of govermnent crackdowns and the multiple hardships that confront most non-official newspapers in sub-Saharan Africa. African and Africanist scholars writing in English, moreover, have focused overwhelmingly on media in anglophone states, notably Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia.4 The passing scholarly attention given the press in francophone countries, such as Côte d'Ivoire, represents another of the literature's many gaps.


Another subject that has received scant consideration and analysis is the set of factors that explains the resilience of the independent press its capacity to endure and develop in the face of imposing if well-known hardships. In addition, the etiologies, or the wellsprings, of the independent press seldom have been examined. From where does the "ethos of independent journalism"5—the values and practices that encourage and promote critical scrutiny of power-wielding institutions and individuals, notably governments and govermnent officials-spring? The literature offers some clues but almost no searching analysis.


This chapter, then, considers the emphases and the numerous gaps in studies about the emergent independent press in sub-Saharan Africa. The com-paratively abundant scholarly literature about hardships and state repression will be briefly reviewed before the examination moves to discuss:

  • the likely etiologies of the ethos of independent journalism in Africa.
  • the role of the press in the process of democratization in Africa.
  • the factors that appear to underlie the often-ignored resilience of the press in Africa.



John C. Merrill, an American scholar of international news media, observed in the early 1990s that "Africa's media problems have essentially been the same" since the independence era of the late 1950s and early 1960s. "Things just keep recurring," he said. "They keep recurring."6 It is an observation that certainly holds true for most analyses of Africa's news media. The hardships and constraints that confront the press in Africa have been features of scholarly and popular studies for at least thirty years. It is striking indeed how the emphasis on what can be called a litany of limitations7—the limited financial resources, the limited advertising base, the limited pool of potential readers, the limited professional training8—has varied so little over the years.


State repression of independent newspapers has been a similarly recurring emphasis in studies of the press in Africa. As Louise M. Bourgault has observed, "The literature on [the] African press tends to treat news reporting on that continent as an ongoing battle between 'Africa's slap happy juntas' or its Big Men on one hand and its beleaguered but heroic press men and women on the other."9 In any case, it was apparent from the first years of post-colonial rule that Africa was a "continent that gags its press." 10 Frank Barton, who for several years directed training programs for journalists in Africa, pithily observed, "As political freedom came to the continent, so did press freedom dis-appear."


Tom Hopkinson wrote Perceptively in 1966: "The press in Africa is facing a crisis before it has grown up. . . Criticism in a large part of the continent is equated with factious opposition: opposition with disloyalty: disloyalty with treason. . . Over much of Africa today the freedom of the press is a highly unpopular cause and the press itself 11 regarded with suspicion.12 In the 1970s, Babatunde Jose, a prominent Nigerian publisher, called attention to the dismaying (if perhaps somewhat overstated) irony that African newspapers "now have relatively less freedom to publish under indigenous African gov-ernments . . than they did under white colonialists."13


Given the expansive and well-documented record of state repression of the press in Africa, the emergence in the late 1980s and early 1990s of newspapers independent of regime control was "dramatic," indeed.14 The appearance of non-official newspapers in so many parts of the continent invited comparisons to an 15 "emancipation,"16 a "stampede"17 and even to "page one news."18 The headiness that accompanied the emergence of non-official newspapers—which generally coincided with a wave of Political liberalization and democratization across the continent—also inspired characterizations such as the following:


With no complexes these papers are investigating question~g speaking out- sometmies with iinpertmenca There no longer seem to be any taboos. The people can and must know everything. The leaders are mortal from now on: they must be brought to account. The headquarters of newspapers have become courtrooms, journalists are summoned to quash one piece of litigation or to defend a cause. "As soon as a newspaper mentions my problem, it will be solved," you often hear ordinary people saying.19


For a time, as Monique Pagés observed, such "enthusiasm, fervor, and the hope in democracy made up for the shortage of financial support and resources, the shortage of journalist equipment experience"20 The founders of La Voie, for example, described themselves as "animated by a will comparable to that of the Vietnamese in their war against the Americans"21 But soon enough, daunting flnanciai difficulties forced scores of emergent newspapers to fold, sometimes after publishing their only inaugural issue. In Benin, where new, non-official titles appeared as the nominally Marxist regime of Mathieu Kérékou crumbled late in the 1980s, one journalist noted: "The need to express oneself, after seventeen years of Marxist dictatorship, caused many [of us] to overlook the crucial role of finances in the business of the press."22


Limited professional experience and training were commonly identified as barriers to credibility of the emergent press. Inexperienced and poorly trained journalists were often blamed for the shrill tone and extreme charges that characterized many new publications.23 Adewale Maja-Pearce, a keen observer of Africa's press, has noted that "the majority of independent newspapers are shoestring affairs staffed by journalists (and even editors) with little or no formal training."24 Personnel responsible for training new journalists were, themselves, sometimes regarded as unqualified to give instruction in journalistic practices.25


The emergent independent press was seldom immune to official crack-down, even in democratizing states. By the mid-1990s, journalists had been jailed and/or their newspapers suspended in almost every country where an independent press had emerged, including Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. 26

But left largely unexamined in the emergence of the independent press in the 1990s were more fundamental questions about the wellsprings of the new titles. All too often, the newspapers were described as having simply "flowered" or "mushroomed,"27 with little or no discussion about the forces and factors that encouraged their emergence. What, indeed, accounted for the emergence (or reemergence) of independent journalism, particularly in countries such as Benin and Côte d'Ivoire that were long ruled by authoritarian regimes? Studies of the African news media have been largely silent about such matters.

To be sure, the limited attention given the etiologies of independent journalism is not unique or peculiar to studies of the press in sub-Saharan Africa. There have been few analyses about the forces and values that contribute to democratic transitions from authoritarian regimes. As Nancy Benneo has observed: "We still know little about how the beliefs associated with democracy emerge. We still seem to know very little about the etiology of democratic norms, beliefs, and behaviors, especially within the context of an authoritarian state."28 Much the same may be said about the sources of the ethos of independent journalism in sub-Saharan Africa. Its etiologies most likely are multiple and likely vary by country. As Samuel Huntington has usefully observed about the processes of democratization:

  • No single factor is necessary to the development of democracy in all countries.
  • Democratization in each country is the result of a combination of causes.
  • The combination of causes producing democracy varies by country.29

While few if any studies offer detailed analyses about the etiologies of independent journalism in Africa, some of them hint at possible or prospective sources. These sources include the legacies of national press traditions, the demonstration effects of professional training programs and of foreign newspapers that freely circulate in many African cities, and the role of print media as an important if complementary link in the traditionally oral chain of communiation in Africa. Each of the prospective wellsprings will be discussed in turn.

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1. La Voie changed its name in May 1998 to Notre Voie. For consistency and convenience, its former name will be used throughout the text of this chapter.
2. The Front Populaire Ivoirien, or Ivorian Popular Front, known by its French acronym, FPI.
3. "Sur la Voie," La Voie (5 January 1998), Internet edition.
4. See Clement E. Asante, The Press in Ghana. Problems and Prospects (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996); Louise M. Bourgault, Mass Media in Sub-Saharan Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), esp. 215-225; she writes at some length about Zambia; William A. Hachten, The Growth of Media in the Third World. African Failures, Asian Successes (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993); he focuses on the cases of Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa; Gunilla L. Faringer, Press Freedom in Africa (New York: Praeger: 1991); she focuses on Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria; Graham Mytton, Mass Communication in Africa (London: Edward Arnold, 1983), esp. 73-130; he investigates the cases of Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia; and Dosu Oyelude, The Press in West Africa: Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Gambia (Brussels, International Federation of Journalists, 1974).
5. Vicky Randall, "The Media and Democratisation in the Third World," Third World Quarterly 14, 3 (September 1993): 632.
6. John C. Merrill, quoted in Cornelius B. Pratt, "Fallacies and Failures of Communication for Development: A Commentary on Africa South of the Sahara," Gazette 52,2(1993): 93.
7. See, among others, William A. Hachten, Muffled Drums: The News Media in
(Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1971), 7-16, 24-28, and 271-276; Frank
Barton, The Press of Africa: Persecution and Perseverance (London: Macmillan, 1979),
1-11; Mytton, Mass Communication in Africa, 4-17; Martin Ochs, The African Press
(Cairo: American University in Cairo, 1986), 123-124; and Hachten, Growth of Media
in the Third World
, 3-10,29-38, and 51-54. See also, Richard Sandbrook, "Transitions without Consolidation; Democratization in Six African Cases," Third World Quarterly 17, 1 (1996): 81-85. Other accounts include Thomas R. Lansner, "The Press in Africa:
peril and Progress," Freedom Review (March-April 1996): 43-46.
8. The literature is particularly detailed about shortcomings in professional de-velopment of African journalists. See, among others, Rosalynde Ainslie, The Press in Africa: Communications Past and Present (London: (lollancz, 1966), 227-230; Frank Barton, African Assignment: The Story of IPI 's Six-Year Training Programme in Tropi-cal Africa (Zurich: International Press Institute, 1969); Hachten, Muffled Drums, 132-140.
9. Louise M. Bourgault, "Press Freedom in Africa: A Cultural Analysis," Journal of Communication Inquiry 17, 2 (Summer 1993): 69.
10. Cited in Ainslie, The Press in Africa, 212.
11. Barton, The Press of Africa, ix.
12. Tom Hopkinson, "The Press in Africa," in Cohn Legum, ed., Africa: A Hand-book to the Continent, rev. ed. (New York: Praeger, 1966), 437.
13. Babatunde Jose, "Press Freedom in Africa," African Affairs 74, 296 (July
1975): 256.
14. Richard Carver, Truth from Below: The Emergent Press in Africa (London:
International Center against Censorship, 1991), 3.
15. Monique Pagés, "L'explosion de la presse en Afrique francophone an sud du Sahara," Afrique Contemporaine 159 (1991): 77.
16. André-Jean Tudesq, Feuilles d 'Afrique: Etude de la presse de 1 'Afrique sub-saharienne. (Talence, France: Aquitaine, 1995), 101.
17. Kwame Karikari, "Africa: The Press and Democracy," Race & Class 34, 3 (1993): 55.
18. Francis Kpatindé, "La presse privée enfm a la 'une," Jeune Afrique (30 January-S February 1991): 12.
19. Alpha Oumar Konaré, "Independent Papers Enjoy a Whiff of Freedom from
Dakar to Kinshasa," IPI Report (May 1991): 20. Konaré was publication director of the
Malian newspaper Les Echos; he was elected Mali's president in 1992 and reelected in
20. Pages, "L'explosion de la presse," 78.
21. Angeline Grobn, "La Voie,' une voix quotidiemie," Notre Temps [Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire] (3 July 1991): 9.
22. Kpatindé, "La presse privée enfm a la 'une," 14.
23. See, for example, Sandbrook, "Transitions without Consolidation," 84.
24. Adewale Maja-Pearce, "Introduction," in Adewale Maja-Pearce, ed., Directory of African Media (Brussels: International Federation of Journalists, 1996): 11.
25. Robert Martin, "Africana: Building Independent Mass Media in Africa," Journal of Modern African Studies 30, 2 (1992): 337.
26. All of those countries are discussed, for example, in Reporters sans Frontières 1993 Report: Freedom of the Press throughout the World (London: Libbey, 1993) and Reporters sans Frontières 1994 Report: Freedom of the Press throughout the World (London: Libbey, 1994).
27. See, for example, "Cover Story: Newspapers Mushroom in Ghana," New African (March 1992): 11. Scholarly analyses leave the question unanswered as well. See, for example, Théophile E. Vittin, "Crise, renouveau ddmocratique et mutations du paysage médiatique an Bénin," Afrique 2000 9 (May 1992): 37-57.
Politics 24 (April 1992): 282.
29. Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oldahoma Press, 1991), 38.