Relative values

Karim Ben Khelifa looked at the work of two daily newspapers at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Asahi Shimbun in Japan, sells 12 million copies daily, and the Senegalese paper Walfadjri based in Dakar has a circulation of 12,000 copies. Both papers share the same goal, independent news coverage, but the resources available for them to achieve this goal are very different

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November 2000 | Karim Ben Khelifa and related links | Archive | View story | 1 of 12
reportage Relative values

"You have carte blanche! Ask me anything you want, we will do everything in our power to satisfy you." With these words, after the traditional exchange of business cards, Chiaki Asano, Chief Foreign Liaison Section of the Presidents Office, opened me the doors of one of the largest circulation newspapers in the world and one of the most respected in Japan, the Asahi Shimbun.

With 12 million copies sold daily, every day of the week, five morning editions and three evening editions, Asahi Shimbun employs 2800 journalists in the head office in Tokyo, in four regional bureaus, 300 local bureaus and 29 foreign bureaus around the globe. Founded in 1879, it was wiped out by the great earthquake that devastated Tokyo in 1923. Since then, Asahi Shimbun has been growing rapidly, reaching a circulation of one million copies in 1924, five million in 1968. In 1976, the paper scored its biggest scoop to date, revealing the embarrassing details of the Lockheed corruption scandal and forcing the then prime minister to resign. In 1988, Asahi Shimbun was the first Japanese medium to announce that Japans emperor was incurably ill. Today, with its 12 million copies, 99 percent of which are subscribers, it is a giant among daily newspapers world-wide.

"In terms of information, we have all the latest technology at our disposal", says Asano, "the web, our own satellite television station, digital photography and a new service, called i-mode, which delivers the latest news to subscribers over their mobile phones. We are also in the process of developing an entirely new structure for the newspaper, based on a state-of-the-art new software program, developed in-house. Asahi Shimbun, you'll see, is more than ready for the 21st century..."

One month later, 14,000 km from the Japanese capital, three journalists are writing their articles by hand under a trembling neon light while a colleague is typing away on the only computer available, a museum piece at that. We are in the offices of Senegal's Walfadjiri, a respected national daily newspaper since 1993. With 30 journalists, two graphic artists, one photographer and one sub-editor, Walfadjiri is working hard at establishing something that is relatively new and almost alien to most of Africa: independent journalism.

At Walfadjiri, it is the publisher himself, Abdourahmanane Camara, who receives me in his office. Apart from the page maker, Camara is the only one at the newsroom to have his own computer. But logistic restrictions are by far the only problem Walfadjiri faces. "The biggest temptation for a newspaper like ours is to succumb to political, religious or commercial influences. None of our journalists is or has ever been a member of a political party. We ware independent both of the left and of the right. Besides, this kind of political opposition doesn't really exist in Senegal."

During the first two days of my visit to Dakar, I hit the streets with the entire print media of Senegal under my arm. The goal: to find out how the people in the streets feel about the quality of their newspapers. The definition of a quality newspaper is very different in Senegal from that in the West. Newspapers are judged not so much by their independence as by the political affiliation; they are perceived as being either pro-government or pro-opposition. When quizzed about this, people will spontaneously talk of the lies and truths that they say have been printed by the various newspapers. Walfadjiri, however, escapes this narrow definition. It is seen as to the point, hard-hitting and a bit of a nuisance to the powers-that-be. It is a sign of quality in Senegal's print media landscape.

Press freedom in Africa, as in many developing countries, is a rare thing. Few newspapers are really independent, even if they claim otherwise, and those that are, are often subject to pressure, threats or quite simply a publication ban. Still, it would be unfair to compare Walfadjiri and Asahi Shimbun solely on their editorial choices or political tendencies. For the logistics available to the journalists in order to do their jobs, very different in Tokyo and Dakar, play a major part too.

In the tiny Dakar offices of Walfadjiri, only three telephone lines are available: one for outgoing calls, one for incoming calls and one for the only internet connection. Quite often, journalists have to wait for the line to be freed. When Walfadjiri's journalists want to consult foreign media, they have to go down to Tilenne market, where the newspapers that are given free to passengers on Dakar-bound flights are resold for 15 $ cents each. Together with radio and television, it is the only source for outside information available.

In the office, only seven, run-down computers are available to the journalists and they often break down. No notebooks or pens are provided. Transportation too is difficult. Since Walfadjiri has only one car, it can happen that a journalist going out on a story first has to drop off several colleagues in different parts of the city before going on to his own destination. A lot of the time, journalists have to fall back on an unreliable public transportation system to get to the story.

Quite different from Senegal, in Tokyo, it is order, hierarchy and a multitude of logistics that help Asahi Shimbun's journalists to get to the story, wherever it may be and, more importantly, to get their first. When a journalist is sent out on a story, and he has received the written authorization of his immediate chief, he only has to go down to the basement of the head office, where a fleet of 135 limousines and drivers is waiting for him. On a really big story, he might chose to go to the roof instead and board one of the five helicopters owned by the newspaper, or take a limousine to the airport, where one of Asahi Shimbun's two jet-planes will be waiting for him.

Asahi Shimbun's also takes care of the more mundane needs of its staff. The head office offers a multitude of services making it altogether unnecessary to leave the building at all: 190 capsule beds, two traditional Japanese bathhouses, several restaurants, a gym, a massage service, a small hospital, a dentists office, a hairdressers, a travel agents, a parcel service...

In front of Walfadjiri's Dakar offices, a big, lively woman invites us in her restaurant, a simple whitewashed room with a Coca-Cola advertisement for sole decoration. The restaurant is leased by the newspaper to allow the staff to have their lunch without wasting too much time. The Yassa meat dishes and the Thieboudienes, eaten in for huge collective pots, are paid for by the newspaper, the tea afterwards is at the expense of the journalists.

The restaurant is the only external service Walfadjiri has. It says a lot about the way journalists here, as elsewhere in Africa, have to fence for themselves. When in 1998, Nino Viera, the president of neighbouring Guinea-Bissau, requested the help of the Senegalese army to crush a rebellion against his regime, Walfadjiri gave its special correspondent 20 US dollars for expenses to cover the war on the Senegalese side. Stuck in the bush, he was unable to transmit a single article. His reports were printed only three weeks later, upon his return to Dakar.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, four photographers are sent out on one of Asahi Shimbun's helicopters in the middle of the night. A volcano has erupted on a small island 600 km north of Tokyo, and the four photographers will be battling each other for the front-page picture in the morning edition.

Karim Ben Khelifa

November 2000 | Karim Ben Khelifa and related links | Archive | View story | 1 of 12