Freeing the Press

March 13, 1994|By BEN BARBER

CONAKRY, GUINEA — Conakry, Guinea. -- A mini-mob of excited Guineans is beating on the roof and pulling at the tinny, dented doors of our taxi, which is blocked in traffic and cannot escape. The windows are rolled up, so for the moment they cannot reach in and grab us, but the heat is dizzying, and a claustrophobic terror seizes us as the growing wall of bodies blocks out the daylight.

The leader demands my camera and passport. I say I had permission from the man whose photo I'd taken moments earlier, sitting against a wall bearing a political poster. But the zealous leader, calling forth deeply seated xenophobia against Westerners who are believed to use such photos to discredit Guinea, continues to block the way and reach in through the driver's window.

Finally, realizing that this is most likely street theater, rather than a serious attempt to spill blood, I say in French: "I'm a journalist and was invited by your president to come here. Two days ago I interviewed the president. I have a visa and a passport and press card. If you want to see it and prove this, let's go to the closest police station right now."

Suddenly the wind goes out of the man's sails. He signals the mob to let us go.

It was a minor skirmish in one of the least understood battles going on in the post-Cold War years: the chaotic emergence of press freedom in areas that had spent decades under totalitarian rule.

In some Eastern European or Third World countries, the free press is not objective -- it is a press of denunciation, of opposition. Political views color its reporting.

And even though liberalizing governments -- anxious for Western aid which is often linked to progress toward democracy -- allow free print media, they usually cling to control of TV and radio.

Guinea is a case in point. The West African nation of 7 million is ranked at the bottom of the world's nations in quality of life by the U.N. Development Program in 1993.

Under xenophobic dictator Sekou Toure from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, it was a tropical backwater for terrorists to rest up in safe houses. Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael settled here and still is seen around town. Diplomats from the hardest-line anti-Western countries still hoist their flags here long after the sun has set on their influence: Cuba, Vietnam, Libya, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

After Sekou Toure's death in 1984, a mob sacked and burned his residence, revealing the myth of the "people's democratic republics," which were neither popular nor democratic. But military leader Lansana Conte, who seized power, then did not entirely get the message until the Iron Curtain came down decisively in 1990.

Since then, he opened up the prison that was Guinea: tourists were allowed in, Guineans were allowed to travel abroad, private enterprise and foreign investors were welcomed, and this past December, multiparty elections took place.

It's widely accepted here that Mr. Conte's party won a plurality of the vote. But many believe the results were fudged to grant him an absolute majority and avoid a runoff election, especially when the Supreme Court voided tens of thousands of ballots in districts that voted heavily for the opposition.

But the country had avoided the specter of ethnic violence between Susus, Malinke and Peuls -- a specter that had clouded the horizon much as the blowing seasonal sands from the Sahara place a permanent mist over the capital in winter. Opposition candidates advised supporters to accept the fait accompli of the election.

So Jan. 29, Mr. Conte was inaugurated as the first elected president of the Third Republic in what one diplomat called an excruciatingly boring ceremony laced with boot-licking speeches and obscure quotations from Corneille and other monuments of French culture so loved by the Paris-educated elites and so meaningless to the 75 percent of Guinea who are illiterate and don't speak French.

However, after the robed and suited leaders from Gambia, Sierra Leone and other neighbors returned home, President Conte conducted his first news conference since he gave a lecture to the news media a year earlier. We were unsure if questions from the independent press would be allowed.

In the past three years the written press has become fairly unfettered by the government, which nevertheless holds tightly to control over the radio, TV and the only daily newspaper -- all of which vie for achievement in sycophancy.

But even the best opposition paper circulates perhaps 6,000 copies a week and has little chance to sell up-country, where the French language is barely known and the cost (600 Guinean Francs, about 60 cents U.S.), is food for a day. The few potential advertisers in the world's poorest economy fear to run ads in papers critical of the government.

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