"After twenty-odd years of existence, the Comorian press is still in its infancy." This remark by Ahmed Ali Amir, journalist with the state-owned weekly Al Watwan, neatly sums up the newspaper situation in the Comoros Archipelago which has approximately 700 000 inhabitants. There are never more than four titles available from Comoran newsstands and the independent publications (Kashkazi, La Gazette des Comores and L'Archipel) are not published regularly due to financial constraints.
The challenge facing the Comoran print media is exacerbated by print runs never exceeding 2000 copies and a newspaper readership which is also in its infancy. If newspapers are struggling to find readers, Ali Amir, also Communications Director of the Comorian Print Media Organisation (OCPE), created in 2006, blames the "foreign" languages used, namely French and Arabic (the latter being the official language of the country, a member of the Arab League).
"There has never been a newspaper in the Comoran language and launching one, combined with a huge literacy campaign aimed at rural communities, would the best way to reach a greater number of Comorans," he told APN.
For Soeuf Elbadawi, a freelance journalist reporting for the independent monthly Khashkazi, the situation is much more complex. "Comoran society is not particularly focused on the written medium. The educational situation is admittedly catastrophic but if the Comorans don't read the press it's because they have other more pressing needs," and then goes on to say, "The Comorans are among the poorest people on the planet. The country has been politically unstable for years, has been hit hard by an economic crisis and depends on international aid. Being hungry doesn't prevent you from reading but it does mean that reading the press is not a priority."
Given the economic situation of the country, which inevitably affects the press too, the press freedom question is a particularly burning issue. Ahmed Ali Amir tells us that "since 1990, with the democratisation that followed the election of President Sa´d Mohamed Djohar, the media has been relatively free although journalists have been arrested after reporting corruption cases."
The information code currently in force dates from 1994 and includes prison sentences and fines for press offences which breach "national honour" or state security. "The wording is deliberately vague to hold the sword of Damocles over the profession," according to Ali Amir whose organisation is mobilising to try and decriminalise press offences.
Despite the violations which are regularly denounced by international press freedom organisations, El Badawi doesn't see the situation of his peers as being particularly alarming. He believes that "a journalist is not much more exposed than an ordinary citizen." All the same, he admits that the press independence question is highly relevant in a country like the Comoros "which is poor, still a trusteeship territory and politically unstable."
"Our only resource is our intelligence and intelligence in countries that face so many pressing issues means submitting to the wishes of the highest bidder. I don't believe in media independence in this context," claims Elbadawi who nonetheless continues to call for greater freedom of expression.
Moreover, he adds, "anyone who tries to defend this freedom meets with the incomprehension of those around him, notably his peers who are not inclined to assert their right to freedom of expression."
To explain this paradox, he points out that Comoran society is not only poor but also very community-based and closed. "You belong to your village, to your clan, etc. And when you write you're inevitably seen as going against your clan. This is why we are seeing the development of an avoidance strategy where people hide behind the unspoken toavoid confrontation. And the result? A total lack of debate in Comoran society," laments Elbadawi.
Without wishing to deny the existence of those working in newspapers such as Kashkazi or L'Archipel who demand freedom of expression and refuse any compromise, Elbadawi believes that it is journalists themselves who set red lines and that their complacency leads them inexorably towards self-censorship. The greatest challenge for the Comoran press is "to dare," he concludes!