The urgent need for an African magazine

By Issa A. Mansaray

In the past, the most important means of communication in many African countries were the “talking drums,” which transmitted messages from one village to another. Through the drums, news was passed on from elders and decision makers in towns and villages. Although it was a slow process, this system held many communities together.

Today Africa has an abundance of modern communications outlets, including more than three thousand paid-for newspapers of various sizes. In South Africa alone there are some five hundred community newspapers. Estimates of the number of newspapers in my own country, Sierra Leone, range from less than forty to fifty-six, but no one knows how many there are for sure.

Nevertheless, Africa has a long way to go to catch up with the proliferation of news media in the Americas and in Europe, or the freedom of the press that exists in most Western countries. Africa also lacks their speed of communication—telephones often don’t work, internet connections are poor, postal services unreliable, radio stations few in number, and printing presses outdated and poor in quality. Transmitting news from one African country to another can take days and sometimes weeks. Africans want and need timely information on current issues, news about their communities and their world, and debates about new ideas.

Nowhere is this need greater than in war-torn countries like Somalia, Sudan, and Ivory Coast—or in Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from the devastating effects of eleven years of civil war that ended in 2002. But there are other critical factors hindering the delivery of the news and information so vital to Africa’s development.

Democracy is still a work in progress in many parts of the continent. Media censorship is widespread, and African authorities change media laws at will to suit their political agendas. In Sierra Leone and other countries, the major TV stations are government owned.

The International Press Institute has reported that, since 1997, sixty-three journalists have been killed in Africa. At the peak of Sierra Leone’s war, journalists became targets of the warring factions. Sixteen lost their lives, others were beaten. Many fled into exile.

Although there are several major magazines that purport to cover the entire continent, all of them are published in England, France, Germany, or the U.S. These magazines, as well as other American and Western media, repeatedly use outdated clichés (such as those found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) that lead to misunderstandings about the various crises besetting the continent.

What Africa needs is a magazine of its own: one that will cover the continent from an African perspective; one that will deal with such problems as AIDS, immigration, intertribal and linguistic tensions, and Africa’s lack of career diplomats; and one that will provide in-depth coverage of relevant United Nations debates and issues relating to energy and power, business development, education, politics, press freedom, and human rights—all from an African point of view, reflecting African priorities.

Such a magazine would ask African government officials the hard questions. It would publicize the plight of journalists and help to protect them from censorship and other government repression. It would crusade for an international Freedom of Information Act. It would be written by Africans for Africans, and it would bind the peoples and communities of Africa together much as the talking drums used to.

Considering the costs involved, it would have to start modestly, perhaps in the form of a newspaper tabloid similar in look and feel to the newly redesigned New York Observer, which is essentially a magazine in tabloid-newspaper form. For a working title, I suggest the AfricaPaper.

It would be published monthly and sold for about fifty cents a copy. To augment its revenue, it would accept advertisements and undertake special research and reporting projects. Perhaps later, as it grows and becomes profitable, it could evolve into a more conventional magazine format, with a smaller trim size, better paper, and more color.

To get started, it could make distribution arrangements with newspapers in various African countries. The partner publications would be allowed to print and sell the magazine as an insert in their newspapers. The magazine could be sent in the form of PDFs to these affiliated newspapers, which would be permitted to publish all or part of each month’s issue.

There are many foundations in the United States and abroad that claim to be interested in improving the lot of Africa and its peoples. To these philanthropists, I suggest that you consider the facts presented here. The people of Africa have many needs, not the least of which is the need for news and information presented in a timely way, meeting the highest journalistic standards, and unfettered by government restrictions. Why not commission a feasibility study to find out how you might help alleviate this need?
The AfricaPaper could be the answer.


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