close this bookThe Courier - N°158 - July - August 1996 Dossier Communication and the media - Country report Cape Verde
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Benin's press on parole?

by Richard Lawson Tèvi

When President Mathieu Kérekou of Benin granted permission to set up private newspapers in his country, the result was an upsurge of new titles. The following article is written by a journalist who works on one of these publications ('Tam-Tam Express'). He offers an assessment of the way the private press has developed in Benin, and in particular of the ethical and economic challenges it needs to overcome in the new democratic order.

In 1988, President Kérékou's revolutionary regime authorised the setting-up of private newspapers in Benin. At the beginning, only a limited degree of freedom was granted to new publications but things have evolved quickly. 'La Gazette du Golfe' and 'Tam-Tam Express', the first independent weeklies to be set up (two years prior to the 1990 national conference), went beyond what the Marxist regime had in mind and effectively achieved press freedom in the face of opposition from the Ministry of Information and Propaganda.

Journalists took advantage of their initial limited freedom to publish reports about political and financial scandals and this, not surprisingly, gave a new lease of life to the media more generally in Benin. In particular, journalists from the national radio and television channels were quick to switch their style of reporting, dispensing with the stereotyped formal language which had previously characterised the public-service media.

Meanwhile, several politically oriented publications came into being ('L'Opinion', 'La Recade', 'Le Canard du Golfe'). This development gave newfound dynamism to the emergence of a free and independent press in the crucial period prior to Benin's national conference, which was held in February 1990.

To date, 170 titles have been registered with the Ministry of the Interior, although barely half of these have been published more than five times. Some appeared only once and many have existed in name only. Publications which have had only a sporadic existence are legion and, in the years between 1991 and 1996, when political power alternated between Presidents Soglo and Kerekou, independent privatepress titles flourished. Unfortunately, they faced a number of problems - such as prohibitive paper and printing costs and poor distribution networks. The result was that many operators were financially ruined as a result of their decision to venture into this area of publication.

Currently, the Benin market has only 20 or so titles which appear on a reasonably regular basis. For the most part, these are two-weekly and monthly publications which concentrate their activities in Cotonou. The audiovisual media are conspicuous by their absence, despite the provisions of the Constitution adopted in December 1990, which gave special powers to the HAAC (Audiovisual and Communications High Authority), particularly as regards guaranteeing 'press freedom' and 'opening up the audiovisual sector'. No one knows when this law will actually be implemented, but it does appear that the Benin Parliament, which sits in Porto Novo, has been giving more attention to this issue since General Kérékou's accession to power.

The relationship between the press and the state

Governmen/press relationships are not particularly healthy at the moment. The usual reflex of authorities in any country is to control or manipulate the press wherever possible. At the ORTB (Benin Broadcasting and Television Office), a branch of the public sector, journalists often complain of the pressures they face in processing information. The same is said at the national daily, 'La Nation'. Fortunately, such pressures have not always shaken the resolve of the professional journalists.

The private press has a different problem. In this case, it is the newspaper proprietors who look to collaborate with the political parties. As one publishing editor has said, 'Our problem is more one of allegiance than of harassment'. Virtually all publications are political vehicles for one or other group - which makes nonsense of the code of ethics that is supposed to govern the profession. This phenomenon was most marked during the election period. All the titles that had been in 'hibernation' came to life again and new titles were born, only to disappear once the poll was over. This is also a reflection of the very meagre resources available to most private publishers. Those who do have sufficient means are usually quick to offer allegiance - for example to particular businesses - in order to position themselves more favourably from an economic standpoint. Thus, some of the press rather overtly promotes particular economic interests. Others assiduously woo politicians and, in some cases, use blatant blackmailing techniques. In the latter situation, the 'market' operates on the basis that a file (sometimes assembled from a number of documents) will not be published if an endorsement is given or - what is worse - in return for hard cash. The justification for this shameful practice is that the market is highly restricted, sales of newspapers bring in very little income and advertising is non-existent but the newspaper has to keep going nonetheless. This situation also explains why defamation actions are frequently settled 'out of court' by the parties to the dispute.

A profession fraught with difficulties

Another explanation for the existence of blackmail is the lack of training. The majority of journalists working for private publications come into the profession for want of something better to do, after they have finished their university courses. One experienced journalist refers to these people as mere 'hirelings'. It is only once they have entered the profession that they learn the basics through joining journalists' associations and by receiving support from some of the bilateral-cooperation missions and foundations that are operating in Benin. The country does not, itself, have any colleges of journalism to speak of. Only recently, the national daily newspaper inaugurated a course for young journalists receiving their training on the country's various publications. This course will be spread over one year.

Young journalists working at the national agency, the Benin Press Agency, are trained by WANAD (the West-African National Agencies Development) centre, under the auspices of UNESCO, which is subregional in vocation. The 20 or so trainees have no clear idea of what awaits them when they finish their course - whether all, or just some of them, will be taken on full-time by the agency. Those who are not kept on at the end of their training period are likely to swell the ranks of the 'hirelings' - who seem fated to remain at that level.

The new administration will have to tackle the more general question of aid to the press in order to give a fresh boost to the private sector. This has been facing a real struggle since the devaluation of the CFA franc. The effect of the devaluation was to increase the cost of all the inputs needed for publishing newspapers. A new initiative of the part of the authorities would make it possible to offer more work to journalists and to improve considerably the quality of work they produce. To quote the publisher of a private newspaper: 'The influence of money must be curbed. To do this, the state must grant genuine aid to the press so that the profession can be genuinely free and objective and thereby fulfil the important role it has to play in the consolidation of democracy'. R.L.T.

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