Striding Toward Independence p. 18

By: Tony Case Pan-African News Agency, under UNESCO's guidance, is
moving away from government funding, toward privatization sp.

IN FEBRUARY 1993, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization seconded journalist Babacar Fall to the Pan-African News Agency to oversee the privatization of the government-funded service.
But when Fall arrived in Dakar, Senegal, where PANA is based, he found what could more accurately be described as the remains of a news organization.
The agency employed only four correspondents, even though it spent $120,000 a month on administrative salaries. Production had dwindled to only 2,000 words per day, and some days no news was reported. Amazingly, the service was being distributed in only two of the 49 PANA-affiliated countries. And the communications system was kaput, as PANA's telephone service had been cut, effectively putting a halt to all fax, telex and modem transmissions. Fall spent his first day in Dakar negotiating to get the lines reconnected.
It's no wonder that, from its founding in 1979 to recent times, PANA had little credibility among the African states, which provided 100% of its financing, and among news outlets, which saw the service as a propaganda tool of the governments.
"It was like an army: There were a lot of generals without troops," Fall recalled during a recent trip to the United States. "In a news agency, the troops are the journalists and the technical department. There was an internal auditor who was auditing nothing, because there was no money."
To be viable, PANA had to restructure management, update its obsolete infrastructure and market itself as a sort of African Associated Press. It was also crucial that the organization sever all ties with the nations of Africa.
So the agency, under UNESCO's guidance, initiated a plan to become independent by the end of 1996.
PANA has made a remarkable turnaround in the last three years. It's now distributing over 40,000 words, in English and French, every day in 38 countries. Its budget was slashed in half, while the work force ballooned by one-third to 120.
All those executive posts were abolished, and the number of correspondents went from four to 41. PANA aims to employ 54 journalists by year's end and to open news bureaus in Brussels, Tokyo and Washington, D.C.
Much has changed in Africa since the creation of a continental news agency was suggested at the first Pan-Africanist Congress, held in London in 1900. The revamping of PANA coincides with the proliferation of democratic ideals throughout the nations of this massive continent, and the resulting expansion of a free press there.
There used to be typically one or two independent media outlets in an African colony. Today, it's not unusual to find a dozen newspapers and radio stations.
"The democratization process has created an emerging independent press," said Fall, who worked for African publications in London and Paris before joining UNESCO. "In such an environment, in terms of freedom of the press and progress in democracy . . . the public wanted very credible information, very professional products. There was no way for PANA to continue being what it was before."
By next year, the news service hopes to increase its reach via a satellite communication system that will beam news to 75 countries in Europe, America, Asia and the Arab world.
To promote its product in America, PANA has started a free sampling program aimed at black-owned newspapers that include the Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Sentinel and Atlanta Voice.
PANA will ask these organizations to begin paying for the service next January, but Fall doesn't expect their support to slack off. "They're using it fully," he said.
Every week, PANA puts out specialized news bulletins about Africa, focusing on the environment, scientific research, the economy and sports. Also, it produces a weekly African press review. All these reports are available on the World Wide Web.
Potential investors in PANA will convene in South Africa next month. Once a system of shareholders is set up, the owners will elect a director general to run PANA.
"We, at the level of UNESCO, will give them the key and go back to our headquarters," Fall said. "They will find an engine that is working, and they will have to manage it and continue it."
PANA's restructuring calls not only for a wider dissemination of news, but for what Fall calls a nonmedia information exchange, "for the businessman in Zimbabwe, selling tobacco."
Through PANA, the worldwide business community will be able to retrieve data about African companies, and vice versa. The users will pay for this information and, therefore, subsidize PANA's news reporting initiative.
This enterprise, though unrelated to journalism, is "the only way to professionalize the emerging press in Africa," Fall maintained.
"Most of the newspapers and private radio stations have been set up by professional journalists who have been fighting for freedom of the press for years and years ? but, at the same time, they don't have money," he said.
"A news service is unprofitable, anywhere in the world. You have to find other sources of income. If you wanted to count only on selling your news service, you would go into bankruptcy."
?(Babacar Fall) [Photo]


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