Bemused Chadians here are being treated to an entertaining spectacle presented by the foreign press corps, which each day uses a motley assortment of sputtering second-hand mopeds and motorcycles and ramshackle taxis to race a quarter mile down Mobutu Sese Seko Boulevard from the Information Ministry to the Hotel Chari.
More than 50 of the 120 foreign reporters here make the race a daily ritual as they leave the "on-the-record" briefing of Chadian Information Minister Mahamat Soumaila. They are rushing to attend the 1 p.m. "background" briefing of the French military spokesman in the main dining room of the plusher of this capital's two livable hotels.
The daily press briefings resemble a media circus. French, British, American, Japanese, Korean, West German, Italian, Sudanese and Chinese reporters try to get either Soumaila, the French military spokesman or a western diplomat at a third "background" briefing to say something dramatic about a stalemated war for which the news literally has dried up. The lull in the fighting, which pits the rebel forces and their Libyan allies against the government troops and their French allies, even has led to some tense moments within the press corps.
A new batch of a dozen reporters arrived yesterday on the once-a-week flight from Paris. Soumaila tried to accommodate them at today's briefing by repeating some of what he has said during the past two weeks as if it were news.
With the newly arrived reporters pressing for information to dispatch today, Soumaila added that about 100 Libyan tanks were seen south of Faya Largeau on the road to Koro-Toro.
"The Libyans are preparing an attack against our positions at Salal," added Soumaila with a dramatic air. Salal, the next town south after Koro-Toro on the western route from Faya Largeau to Ndjamena, is defended by French paratroops and the Chadian soldiers of President Hissene Habre. But western intelligence sources discounted the claim.
Soumaila's briefing ended late, at 1:06 p.m., so the race to the scheduled French military briefing was especially intense. It was won by a British reporter who had exchanged a moped for a rented motorcycle. But, as usual, the military spokesman arrived late, well after even the last stragglers from the race arrived.
The French military spokesman has been nicknamed "monsieur speak no evil" because of his constant repetition of what he will not comment on, which, of course, is almost everything reporters want to know about. For instance, last week the military spokesman refused to confirm reports being leaked by the French Defense Ministry in Paris that French paratroops were moving north to join Habre's troops at Arada and Biltine, nearer to rebel-held Faya Largeau on the eastern route to the capital. Reporters instead took the news from their shortwave radios.
On Soumaila's revelation today that Libyans and tanks have moved south of Faya Largeau, the military spokesman said heatedly, "I do not give any information on the military situation."
The English-speaking reporters who do not understand French get together with those who say they do to get varying translations of what was said by Soumaila and the French military spokesman. Then everyone listens to radio broadcasts to make sure they got it right and to hear what news about Chad may be coming out of Paris or Washington before rushing off to write the day's story.
Since the beginning of the war in late June, reporters have not been allowed to visit the front and apparently will not be allowed to, according to a message from French Defense Minister Charles Hernu delivered last weekend by "monsieur speak no evil." Hernu was replying to a petition by 34 French reporters here complaining that the French military was blocking their access to the front and not giving them any information.
A near riot broke out early last week when the French military spokesman suggested that a pool of 12 reporters be flown to the eastern town of Abeche to see the French and Chadian troops in place there. The pool would then brief the other reporters when they returned. The French reporters yelled and screamed that le pool was an American system and would never work among French reporters. They were right.
The English-speaking press suspected that the French military might try to give all 12 places set aside for reporters on a military Transall troop air transport to French reporters only. The trip was postponed daily while the French reporters fought among themselves about who would go.
Some pushing and shoving broke out one day at the Ministry of Information when a group of French reporters grabbed the agreed-to pool list and began scratching names off and adding their own names.
Finally, Hernu sent a message saying as far as he was concerned Abeche was "off-limits" to reporters, and the French military will not provide transportation there for any reporter. Reporters are free to hire a private plane to go if they obtain written permission from the Chadian government, the military spokeman said. Chadian officials, however, said the entire matter is up to the French. So the press corps remains in Ndjamena.