[This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1982 issue of Nieman Reports.]

The independence era dawned over black Africa two decades ago, and in the flush of victory the new presidents promised their people many things: Constitutions, they said, would be respected; human rights would be observed; newspapers would remain free and competitive.

One by one those pillars of a free society were uprooted. Constitutions were abolished and replaced by one party mandates. Human rights were ignored, the victim of soldier-presidents who understood only the power of the gun. And the free press died, too, transformed almost overnight into an organ of propaganda for various governments run by self-appointed presidents-for-life.

Today the role of newspapers in black Africa has declined so dramatically that they have little significance in society. People no longer ask what the future of the press is in black Africa; they ask instead if it has any future at all. And regardless of what yardstick you use, it is difficult to find much room for optimism.

In the mid-1960’s, according to the International Press Institute, there were 299 daily newspapers in Africa. That figure includes about 40 papers in the Arab states, mostly Egypt, and about 30 in the white-ruled areas of southern Africa. By the early 1980’s, only 150 dailies were left on the continent, and the shrinkage had occurred almost exclusively in black Africa. Nine countries had no newspaper at all.

The combined daily circulation of the papers in Africa fell during that period from well over three million to two million. Thus, the circulation on a continent of 455 million people is only two-thirds of what a single London newspaper, the Daily Mirror, sells in a day.

There are several factors that help explain what is, for all practical purposes, the death of the African newspaper: an illiteracy rate that runs as high as 90 percent in some African countries; the emergence of radio as the most powerful communications medium on the continent; the high cost of importing newsprint from Europe, and the absence of daily or weekly newspapers in the rural areas, where the majority of people live. All this has made newspapers an amenity of the city elite.

But the most important factor—and the most unsettling one—is simply that the vast majority of Africa’s 50 governments consider any independent, questioning voice to be a potential threat. So the governments quickly took control of the media, eliminating opposition newspapers and using the sole official daily not to inform the people, but to manipulate, organize and control them. Here is how an official communiqué from the Republic of Somalia defines the role of the press: “It is the function of the nation’s mass communications media to weld the entire community into a single entity, a people of the same mind and possessed of the same determination to safeguard the national interests.”

For a Westerner, this is pretty scary, Orwellian stuff, but not so for Africans. Their newspapers are written and edited by civil servants, not independent reporters, and their contents are as unbiased as something a U.S. political party might publish during an election campaign. The news is all good: Windy speeches by various officials are printed with painstaking accuracy, and four or five photographs of the President may appear in the same edition. When Somalia invaded Ethiopia’s Ogaden region in 1977, for instance, and moved unchecked through the crumbling Ethiopian defenses, readers of the Ethiopian Herald knew nothing about the advance; the Herald simply carried no stories on the subject. It was not until Ethiopia took the offensive that the paper started covering the war, but even then it made no mention of the fact that Russian advisers and Cuban troops were on the front lines leading the Ethiopians—a fact that was capturing page one headlines in Europe and the United States.

Except in Nigeria—where the black press dates back to a paper called Iwe Irohnin, first printed in 1859—the early newspapers on the continent were published by colonialists for colonialists. They bequeathed to Africa’s young nations an independent, competitive press, which, at independence, was the first of the Western-style institutions to fall, for that was the one tool the new, insecure governments most needed to exploit the uneducated masses. Nigeria’s first government needed only one year to forget its proud journalistic history in favor of a course that stifled critical comment.

In 1961 the High Court of Lagos found journalist Chike Obi, the “Thomas Paine of Nigeria,” guilty of sedition as a result of a pamphlet he published entitled, “The People: Facts That You Must Know.” The seditious section that resulted in Obi’s imprisonment read:

“Down with the enemies of the people, the exploiters of the weak and the oppressors of the poor! The days of those who have enriched themselves at the expense of the poor are numbered. The common man in Nigeria can today no longer be fooled by sweet talk at election time only to be exploited and treated like dirt after the booty of office has been shared.”

The story across the rest of Africa is not much different, even today. President Hastings Banda of Malawi jailed virtually the whole nongovernmental press corps in the mid-1970’s. President Kenneth Kaunda appoints and fires newspaper editors in Zambia. In countries such as Uganda and Zaire journalists shuttle in and out of jail so regularly that their families don’t even ask where they have been when they reappear after an absence of several days. In Equatorial Guinea, the late president, Macias Nguema Biyogo, went one step farther: By the time he was overthrown by his cousin and killed in 1979, all journalists in the country had been murdered or were in exile.

Are there any bright spots amid the gloom? A few, perhaps. Kenya and Nigeria each have competing newspapers that are largely untouched by government censors (though individual reporters are mindful of the need for self-censorship), and at least half a dozen countries have produced talented journalists who would have influential voices if they were working anywhere else but in Africa.

But just as the free press was the first institution in black Africa to fall, I’m afraid it will be the last to be resurrected. Before one can even contemplate a renewed role for newspapers, governments will have to become more secure, leaders more tolerant, the masses more educated. Only then will the African journalist have a chance to be a real journalist.

David Lamb, a 1981 Nieman Fellow, was Bureau Chief in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1976-80 for the Los Angeles Times and has been in Cairo, Egypt, since 1982. This article is adapted from his book, “The Africans,” to be published by Random House.

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