It is the prevailing official African view that the Western media have a monopoly over the shape and substance of news emanating from the continent and that as a result the Western, and too often even the African, reader is getting a distorted picture.

After working in Africa for three years, I have come to precisely the opposite conclusion: that African governments exercise so much control over Western news agencies and correspondents that it is becoming extremely difficult to tell the reader what really is happening.

Contrary to African propaganda, Western news agencies are not free-wheeling operators. Indeed, they are more often veritable captives of local governments, publishing their official communiques and views on world events with little criticism and deliberately steering away from controversial local issues.

At the same time, Western correspondents, who have more freedom than the agencies, are being forced increasingly to choose between "telling it like it really is" and being banned from the country or compromising on the best journalistic principles and hardly telling "it" at all.

African governments are seeking to justify their repressive measures against the Western press by claiming too many correspondents are "irresponsible" and present an "unbalanced" view. But instead of working to explain better these realities and to facilitate the access of correspondents to them so that a more balanced picture can emerge, they are tending simply to turn their backs on the whole problem, apparently hoping that it will go away.

Neither African governments nor the Western media seem to be facing up to the real problem. On the African side, it involves the crudest forms of news management and a near total lack of appreciation for the art of public relations. On the media side, it involves a total lack of preparation of both editors and their emmissaries to deal with the kinds of pressures and compromises they are facing in trying to report the news from Africa.

Meanwhile, the crisis is deepening daily. More and more African governments are either closing their doors to the Western media or seeking to impose extremely tight regulations and censorship on what is being filed.

In March and April, Zaire expelled a dozen or more Western correspondents for sending stories critical of either President Mobutu Sese Seko or the performance of his army in dealing with a "rebellion" or "invasion" (depending on your political viewpoint) in southern Shaba province.

At the end of April, Ethipia told all resident Western correspondents, including this one, to leave the country within 48 hours essentially because they were reporting in far too much detail for the military's liking the fighting taking place between pro- and anti-government forces.

Earlier in the year, Nigeria expelled the resident correspondent of The New York Times, John Darnton, for reporting on one instance of the military's misbehavior there. This effectively reduced the number of Western correspondents based in that country to just one, the Agence France-Presse representative. Two other American news organizations, the Voice of America and the Associated Press, concluded it was impossible to operate in Lagos and closed their bureaus there, while Reuters was ordered out of the country last summer.

The net effect of these expulsions and operating difficulties has been to leave the continent's most populous and wealthy nation almost totally uncovered by the Western media. In fact, the vast majority of Western correspondents covering Africa now reside either in Johannesburg or increasingly isolated Nairobi.

Many other African states, most notably the Marxist- or socialist-oriented ones, have all but shut out the Western press. Obtaining visas for Angola, Mozambique, Congo-Brazzaville, Somalia, Malawi, Equitorial Guinea, French Guin ea, Uganda and now Ethiopia is either extremely difficult or impossible - particularly for American correspondents.

News reporting in white-ruled Africa is somewhat better. South Africa has made a determined effort to improve the access of foreign correspondents to even the many grim realities of the country, and it is today far easier for them to obtain visas to the country than three years ago.

Meanwhile, the white minority government in Rhodesia has tightened considerably its controls over foreign correspondents. They must now report within 24 hours of their arrival to the information ministry to obtain a work permit and permission to stay on in the country. Visits to the war zones are rare and carefully guided, and any reporting on such delicate issues as the loyalty of black troops serving in the white-run army and police is cause for expulsion.

However, on balance there is far greater press freedom in white-ruled Africa than on the rest of the continent - at least for the moment.

The blatant - and many subtler - ways of suppressing and controlling the news have resulted in a tremendous amount of self-censorship and self-restraint. But even more disturbing, particularly to many individual correspondents working for the news agencies, is the growing acceptance by management in London, Paris and New York of the outright suppression of controversial news for the protection of existing contracts and the better pursuit of new ones.

There is a real dilemma here: Should the whole truth as best we correspondents can determine it be sacrificed so that at least some of the truth gets through to the outside world?

Santimonious cries of "freedom of the press" from Wester media managers will not solve the problem. The crisis might best be attacked by a frank discussion of the issue and ways of solving it first within the confines of the profession itself and then with Western and African governments that have an interest in the shape, substance or free flow of news.

It is time for foreign correspondents and the news organizations they represent to face and discuss among themselves the real problem of the profession in Africa today: How best to deal with the sensitivities of local governments and with the dilemma of whether to really "tell like it is."