Congo – Brazzaville is known to have a very fragile media in Central Africa. Since the country transitionned to political pluralism after its Sovereign National Conference in the 1990s, the media was also diversified. However it became more and more difficult for the journalists to be independent given the structural difficulties and the concentration of power in the hands of a few people.
A single newspaper for the whole country
The difficulties encountered in the difficult pressare absurd. Dépêches de Brazzaville is the only newspaper in Congo. It is completely commited to President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Created in 1998 by Jean-Paul Bigasse (the President's communication advisor), the newspaper was published every month in four color printing. It then turned into a weekly newspaper in 2004 and then a daily in 2007. It is one of the few newspapers to have computerised editing, a printing press and is subsidised by the State. It is the only affordablenewspaper (200 FCFA) whereas other newspapers cost at least double the price and do not receive any financial help from the state.
Other newspapers in Africa are as fragile economically. The costs are quite high in the written press, especially paper, purchased in the neighboring countries the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the printing. Except two well established newspapers, Dépêches de Brazzaville and the bi-weekly La Semaine Africaine, other newspapers such as La Rue dies and Tam-Tam Africa are published very irregularly depending on the vagaries of the troubled economy. Their journalists earn a low income and sometimes no income at all. Although there is officially a collective agreement that sets a minimum wage of 90,000 CFA francs (137 euros), it is very rarely followed.
This economic vulnerability has a direct influence on the content of the articles. It partly explains the confusion in many newspapers between articles and advertisements appearing in many media that are not presented as such. Unsufficient advertising and low sales weaken these newspapers even more. Thus the "comorra" (originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo) is widely practiced by many underpaid journalists who are paid to publish a specific press release or article.
Dangerous liaisons between politics and media
From this economic vulnerability stems other issues, one of which is the dangerous liaisons between journalism and politics. According to researcher Marie-Soleil Frère, "in Congo, the majority of the media is the instrument of individual strategies of conquest or conservation of power". Public media is in the hands of the political officials who play a direct role in the country's political game. As a matter of fact, DRTV television channel is owned by the general Nobert Dabira who is a senior Congolese official close to the government. MN TV is owned by Maurice Nguesso, elder brother of the president. Top Tv is owned by his daughter Claudia. Independent newspapers are often directly or indirectly linked to political parties or officials. "As the sector becomes more dynamic, the amount of the pro-government propaganda also increases in the columns of the newspapers and on the radio. The media contributes to the cult of personality, losing all credibility and respect in the eyes of the public". This statement could be read a few months ago in the Congolese barometer media, created by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in collaboration with professionals of the country.
This context of over-politicization and media individualisation has several negative effects. It led some independent newspapers to become a platform for the settlement of scores in the political cenacle by relaying rumors about ministers and favouring anathema to a deep analysis. It also hinders the structuring of the profession and the establishment of professional solidarity that is essential in the most challenging times such as elections. According to "senior" professionals, this solidarity is all the more important because the profession is suffering from a deep lack of training, in a country where civil wars have greatly damaged the education system.
Another major obstacle to the independence of the press is the intimidation, especially when the political situation gets tougher. This is the case in recent weeks with the ongoing debate on the constitutional amendment that would allow the President Sassou to run for a third office. Two journalists were recently expelled: Sadio Kante Morel (freelance journalist) on September 22, and Cameroonian Elijah Smith (from MN TV) on September 26. He was physically assaulted two days after covering a meeting of the opposition.
In addition to this direct violence, many journalists state that media independence is primarily limited by self-censorship. In a context of extreme fragility, taking the risk of opposing potential funders or threathening the existence of the newspapers seems somewhat questionable. According to a report by the Panos Institute, even historical newspapers and reliable references as La Semaine Africaine, bi-weekly created in 1954, backed by the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Conference, negotiate "a relative neutrality" by supporting occasionally the system to avoid trouble and ensure its existence. But in an ultra-pyramidal political system, how can they escape this temptation?
Solutions to these issues are not easy to find. However, there are interesting initiatives that attempt to solve these problems.
Firstly, the lack of means can be solved by international donations. It requires that the people suggest useful projects with a long-term training program and that international donors such as the United States or the European Union, would be solicited especially during the elections. In neighboring DRC, and in a different context, Radio Okapi has proved that with a substantial budget (millions of dollars) funded by the UN, a channel can provide independent information of quality. But this kind of financial help has its limits: what happens when the donor withdraws? Congo-Brazzaville is a stable and potentially rich country. In this situation, how to access such funds generally directed in priority to countries which are in crisis?
Digital technology is a major opportunity in a country where an entrepreneur, Verona Mankou, claims to have created the first African touch pad. If digital technology is probably too often presented as a totem that would solve all problems, it has at least the advantage of reducing costs and broadcasting to a much larger audience. In Congo, a small community of people living in Brazzaville has started a network in a social media platform that rapidly relays informations, especially to the connected diaspora. This network could have a major role in controlling the information although it is difficult to assess its actual impact in a country where the access to internet is limited to a minority of the population.
Another challenge is to be independent from politics. In a pyramidal system, it is difficult to be independent as the political debate in Congo is very limited and has lost all credibility. It is thus easier to focus instead on economic and social issues. There are very interesting projects such as the work of the Association Syfia (http://syfia.over-blog.com), supported by the European Union. The association is composed of a team of journalists who work on human rights issues in Congo. Syfia plays the role of a small news agency and offers reports on the daily struggles of citizens. The main issues concern the relationship between Bantu and indigenous people (pygmies) and the place of women in the economy and the society or environmental protection. Recently, a website http://www.ifrikiamag.com offered a comedic platform to decrypt the clichés or quirks of the Congolese society, and present some cultural operators in the country. Even media close to the President's entourage can diversify their programs and show stories and social issues that meet the actual concerns and expectations of the public, such as the new bimonthly Terrafrica and the private channel TV service Equator Service Television.
Some might say that media avoids the political debate and concentrates on society and culture. However, in recent years, it is largely thanks to the artists and the vitality of the Congolese cultural scene (the playwright Dieudonné Niangouna, the dancer DeLaVallet Bidiefono, the visual artists Bill Kouélany and Gastineau Massamba …) that the dramas of the recent history of Congo could be analysed.
Translated by Aymeric LOUSSALA
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