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Zaire Table of Contents


The Media

Control of the mass media has long been a central element of Mobutu's domination of Zairian political life. Indeed, control of television and radio in particular has been critical to Mobutu's ability to survive and retain power in the early 1990s. In order to assert his authority and undercut the viability of the Tshisekedi government, Mobutu deployed military forces loyal to him to seize control of state radio and television broadcast facilities in Kinshasa, surrounding the buildings with tanks and troops. Throughout 1992 and 1993, the military also systematically attacked the offices of newspapers critical of Mobutu.

During the 1980s, "restructuring" of the press reduced the number of newspapers being issued. In the early 1990s, there were three dailies: L'analyste, Elima, and Salongo, all of Kinshasa. The Lubumbashi and Kisangani papers, formerly dailies, had become weeklies after financial problems.

In the aftermath of Mobutu's speech of April 24, 1990, the situation of the press changed dramatically. While Salongo retained its pro-MPR position, Elima became sharply critical of the regime. Although Elima's editor-publisher spent some time in jail early in 1991, there can be little doubt that his courage opened the field to an independent press. A number of other papers and news magazines appeared, mainly weeklies, and vied with one another in criticizing the government. Because more than half of the population does not speak French, there are periodicals appearing in African languages as well as in French.

The only domestic news agency is the regime-controlled Agence Za´re-Presse (AZAP). Some foreign agencies, including Agence France-Presse, Xinhau, and Reuters, also have bureaus in Kinshasa.

The regime also practices censorship of foreign media, e.g., by forbidding sale of the issue of Jeune Afrique, in March 1990, which carried the text of the memorandum of the Catholic bishops on reforms needed in Zaire. Mobutu virtually conceded that this ban had been ineffective, however, by referring in his April 24 speech to having taken into account "even" the bishops' memorandum.

It should be noted that newspapers and magazines serve mainly educated Zairians. The electronic media reach many more among Zaire's population of some 39.1 million. The government-owned radio station, the Voice of Zaire (La Voix du Za´re), and regional stations could be received on approximately 3.7 million radio receivers, as of 1990. The government-operated, commercial station Za´re TÚlÚvision broadcast from Kinshasa, and service was relayed by satellite to the cities of the interior. In 1990 there were approximately 40,000 televisions in Zaire.

Throughout the Mobutu regime, the content of radio and television news broadcasts has been tightly controlled. Television news follows the official order of protocol, meaning that all news of President Mobutu, however routine, comes before any news of the prime minister, which in turn precedes any news of other ministers. At the height of the cult of personality in the late 1970s and early 1980s, each television news broadcast began with the president's face appearing, godlike, in a bank of clouds.

However, the events of 1989-90, when political change swept the communist states of Eastern Europe and reform occurred in many of Africa's party-states, made it clear that the efforts of the Zairian regime to control the flow of information to the public were ineffective. When Mobutu told Zairians that perestroika was not needed in their country, and people in Kinshasa made jokes about "Mobutu Sesesescu," it was clear how capable the Zairians are of following international news. The role of Brazzaville television and radio, easily picked up in Kinshasa, and of various foreign radio stations, also heard elsewhere in Zaire, seems to be crucial in this respect.

Data as of December 1993