Conakry, Guinea. -- A mini-mob of excited Guineans is beating on the roof and pulling at the tinny, dented doors of our taxi, which is blocked in traffic and cannot escape. The windows are rolled up, so for the moment they cannot reach in and grab us, but the heat is dizzying, and a claustrophobic terror seizes us as the growing wall of bodies blocks out the daylight.
The leader demands my camera and passport. I say I had permission from the man whose photo I'd taken moments earlier, sitting against a wall bearing a political poster. But the zealous leader, calling forth deeply seated xenophobia against Westerners who are believed to use such photos to discredit Guinea, continues to block the way and reach in through the driver's window.
Finally, realizing that this is most likely street theater, rather than a serious attempt to spill blood, I say in French: "I'm a journalist and was invited by your president to come here. Two days ago I interviewed the president. I have a visa and a passport and press card. If you want to see it and prove this, let's go to the closest police station right now."
Suddenly the wind goes out of the man's sails. He signals the mob to let us go.
It was a minor skirmish in one of the least understood battles going on in the post-Cold War years: the chaotic emergence of press freedom in areas that had spent decades under totalitarian rule.
In some Eastern European or Third World countries, the free press is not objective -- it is a press of denunciation, of opposition. Political views color its reporting.
And even though liberalizing governments -- anxious for Western aid which is often linked to progress toward democracy -- allow free print media, they usually cling to control of TV and radio.
Guinea is a case in point. The West African nation of 7 million is ranked at the bottom of the world's nations in quality of life by the U.N. Development Program in 1993.
Under xenophobic dictator Sekou Toure from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, it was a tropical backwater for terrorists to rest up in safe houses. Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael settled here and still is seen around town. Diplomats from the hardest-line anti-Western countries still hoist their flags here long after the sun has set on their influence: Cuba, Vietnam, Libya, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
After Sekou Toure's death in 1984, a mob sacked and burned his residence, revealing the myth of the "people's democratic republics," which were neither popular nor democratic. But military leader Lansana Conte, who seized power, then did not entirely get the message until the Iron Curtain came down decisively in 1990.
Since then, he opened up the prison that was Guinea: tourists were allowed in, Guineans were allowed to travel abroad, private enterprise and foreign investors were welcomed, and this past December, multiparty elections took place.
It's widely accepted here that Mr. Conte's party won a plurality of the vote. But many believe the results were fudged to grant him an absolute majority and avoid a runoff election, especially when the Supreme Court voided tens of thousands of ballots in districts that voted heavily for the opposition.
But the country had avoided the specter of ethnic violence between Susus, Malinke and Peuls -- a specter that had clouded the horizon much as the blowing seasonal sands from the Sahara place a permanent mist over the capital in winter. Opposition candidates advised supporters to accept the fait accompli of the election.
So Jan. 29, Mr. Conte was inaugurated as the first elected president of the Third Republic in what one diplomat called an excruciatingly boring ceremony laced with boot-licking speeches and obscure quotations from Corneille and other monuments of French culture so loved by the Paris-educated elites and so meaningless to the 75 percent of Guinea who are illiterate and don't speak French.
However, after the robed and suited leaders from Gambia, Sierra Leone and other neighbors returned home, President Conte conducted his first news conference since he gave a lecture to the news media a year earlier. We were unsure if questions from the independent press would be allowed.
In the past three years the written press has become fairly unfettered by the government, which nevertheless holds tightly to control over the radio, TV and the only daily newspaper -- all of which vie for achievement in sycophancy.
But even the best opposition paper circulates perhaps 6,000 copies a week and has little chance to sell up-country, where the French language is barely known and the cost (600 Guinean Francs, about 60 cents U.S.), is food for a day. The few potential advertisers in the world's poorest economy fear to run ads in papers critical of the government.
So some 30 government journalists, 20 from the independent press, and a few foreign correspondents in town by chance, spent three hours Feb. 1 asking a fairly wide range of questions. The president showed himself to be a crafty, confident and witty politician, unfazed by the questions, which became increasingly pointed as the conference went on. Even his own man -- one of the government press men -- shocked the room by asking when the army would return to the barracks.
The new government went one step further that night when it allowed the entire press conference to be broadcast on TV and then on radio. Unedited. A taxi driver, days later, turned to a foreign passenger and said: "You are the journalist who asked what the government will do about the poor. The president's answer was not correct. He said they should go back to their villages. But there is nothing to do back there."
The opening up of press freedoms in Guinea, Niger, Senegal and a score of other African countries emerging from repression has enormous importance. If the independent media take on the form of French and English language broadcasts and publications, that will deepen the gulf between elite and the poor. Unlike Southeast Asia, Africa's leaders and bureaucrats have largely failed to adopt economic policies that have benefited the majority of its citizens.
In the past two years I have been part of a small team of working American journalists to lead short, U.S.-funded training seminars for reporters from the government and independent press in Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea.
But because U.S. media have a deep fear of getting in bed with the government in any form, several talented colleagues with wide experience in Africa or fluency in French have been forced by their editors to cancel participation in the workshops.
If the birth of press freedom in these countries is to lead to responsible and effective mass communications, the United States can play a vitally useful role:
* U.S. media should allow newsmen and women to participate in workshops -- even if the funding comes from the U.S. government -- which aim at professional training similar in focus to U.S. journalism schools.
* The Voice of America, whose Hausa language service is widely valued as the only alternative to government programs in Niger, should expand its broadcast services to include other languages, such as Wolof, Malinke, Susu and Peul. Right now, millions who speak those languages get nothing except their own government's views.
* Aid programs might include newsprint for the independent press. Literacy campaigns often founder when there's nothing to read.
A senior U.S. official who deals with Africa policy told me recently that the rush of enthusiasm for democracy in Africa in 1991 and 1992 has turned to frustration as nation after nation stumbles over election fraud, ethnic politics, violence, rising crime and unstoppable poverty. Some Western advisers from the World Bank blame corruption and mismanagement by African governments; African leaders blame the legacy of colonialism and the falling prices of Africa's exports such as coffee and minerals.
It's clear that the French, who have long propped up their former African colonies with aid, advisers and troops to quell disorder, are withdrawing their commitment. Recently the Central African franc, which is backed by the French government and used in 14 countries, was devalued by 50 percent. Increasingly, the United States, despite its focus on aid to Eastern Europe, is seen as the last source of aid, advice and investment.
Even if it takes many years and there are many setbacks, Africa has a decent chance to win the race between population and development and to avoid turning much of the continent into a series of Somalias. To nourish the best of what these nations hold in their cultures and environments and to help them create an informed public able to respond to such challenges as AIDS, changing markets and political choice, a timely and abundant sharing of our glut of media resources is a wise and cost-effective policy to follow.
Europeans such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel said that Radio Free Europe's broadcasts nourished their successful drive toward democracy. A similar investment here can have similar impact and will cost less than emergency humanitarian or military aid after things fall apart.
Ben Barber is a free-lance writer.