Namibian Media Under Attack

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By Petronella Sibeene WINDHOEK Relations between the government and the media in Namibia remain worrying 17 years after the country’s independence, says a report launched Friday. “So This is Democracy?” – a state of the media freedom in Southern Africa 2006 Report launched last Friday – says that the media during the year under review faced strong criticism from government and ruling party figures over their perceived reckless reporting, particularly for publishing commentaries related to divisions within the ruling Swapo Party. “Government and the ruling party figures saw their publication as a provocation and called on the media to regulate itself, while indicating that legal controls could be introduced if the media did not ‘get its house in order’,” said author of the Namibian Chapter Graham Hopwood. Access to information remained a sore point for many journalists in the country. Government, according to the report, has backed the principle of access to information legislation, but has not set a timetable for introducing such a law. Meanwhile, many civil servants continued to block journalists’ attempts to obtain even basic information that should be in the public domain. This is supported by the Namibia’s Public Service Act that makes it a criminal offence for civil servants to release information without the permission of a permanent secretary. Further, the Registrar of Companies prevented reporters searching company records for an indefinite period, ostensibly because data was being computerised. Despite the challenges, says the report, growth, investment and diversification took place on several fronts as the private media moved to take on the challenges of the 21st century. The new developments are leading to increased choice for readers, listeners and viewers. Hopwood warned that if the new developments are not Windhoek-centric and manage to have a truly national reach, the NBC’s traditional hegemony particularly in terms of the influence of its radio stations may face a challenge in the coming years. While Namibia’s media scene showed signs of growth and diversification, the prospects for unity over issues like a code of ethics and a media council remained in doubt. In order to head off further calls for controls on the media, it is imperative for the media to introduce an ethics code and start regulating itself, Hopwood said. “While there is room for optimism, there are also several dark clouds hovering on the horizon. The media faces the prospect of increased litigation over the next few years,” he warned. Minister of Information and Broadcasting Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah has been on record calling for the establishment of a media council in the country. Chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Namibia (MISA Namibia) Christof Maletsky described 2006 as a year of hard knocks for the media in Southern Africa. He revealed 144 press freedom violations were recorded in 11 SADC countries during the year under review. The figure, he added, marked a decrease of 7.6 percent from the previous year (155). In 2006, two journalists were killed (Angola), 12 media practioners were attacked and beaten, 22 were detained, three were sentenced, 24 were threatened, one was expelled, and 24 incidences of censorship and 30 cases of legal action were recorded. Maletsky added that looking at regional trends, MISA witnessed an overall decrease in “conventional” media freedom violations such as physical attacks, arrests and detentions, and outright attempts to censor media workers. However, a steady increase in criminal and civil defamation suits has created an environment where self-preservation through self-censorship has become a common practice. The majority of criminal defamation, he said, is common in Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Maletsky appealed to journalists and free expression activists to rally behind one another especially where it concerns unlawful arrest, detention, assault and torture as these actions not only go beyond the hazards that come with the terrain of profession, but also blatantly violate the charters, conventions and declarations that protect media freedom. This is the 13th consecutive year that MISA has issued this publication. It records incidences of media freedom violations in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.