United Nations Seeks to Nurture Independent Press in Africa

IN response to a burgeoning interest across Africa in ways to foster democracy, the United Nations is organizing an all-Africa seminar on developing an independent and pluralistic press. Organizers believe the meeting could quite literally be revolutionary. To be held in Windhoek, Namibia, April 29 to May 3, the meeting will group journalists, mostly editors and publishers, from more than 40 African countries. To stress the importance of a truly independent press, the meeting will focus on developing a press that is neither owned nor dominated by governments or their oppositions.

"Something is happening in the information realm across Africa that merits the attention of the United Nations and its agencies," says Alain Modoux, director of public information for UNESCO. "Having become aware of a struggling but profound evolution in the press, we wanted to act to encourage it."

The meeting is one concrete result of a unanimous vote by the United Nations General Assembly last year favoring unfettered development of a free and pluralistic press. UNESCO adopted similar pro-independent-press lan- guage in 1989, only a few years after its controversial call for a "New World Information and Communication Order," which in the eyes of many favored a government-controlled press.

"This is not an ideological meeting; we have passed that stage," says Mustapha Tlili of the UN Department of Public Information. "The idea is to show from a practical standpoint how an independent press is developed, to see how financial backing can be found, and what is available in the way of technology."

UNESCO is bent on becoming a protagonist in developing an independent press in regions where information has been tightly controlled. The Africa meeting follows a similar one UNESCO organized last year in Paris to encourage a nascent free press in Eastern Europe. Word got around and people asked, "Why the East and not the South?" says Mr. Modoux.

One problem was that neither the UN's information office nor UNESCO had enough money to organize an Africa seminar. (UNESCO's purse strings have been tight since the United States withdrew its dues-paying membership in 1983 - in part because of disagreement with the New World Information and Communication Order.)

But inquiries found willing backers, notably from the development agencies of Canada and several Scandinavian countries. UN agencies will put up only $75,000 toward the $350,000 seminar, says Modoux.

Some press representatives criticize the seminar's limitation to the written press. But according to Therese Paquet-Sevigny, the UN's assistant general secretary for information, "We wanted to focus on developing the maturity of the written press."

"We also realize," she says, "that governments are not ready to give up their control of broadcasting."

Adds Modoux: "We also didn't want to be seen as troublemakers for our employers, who after all are the [world's] nations."

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