By Chrispin Inambao
– (At the occasion of a series of lectures organised by the Ombudsman’s Office).
Media freedom is a fundamental right in terms our constitution. Article 21 of the constitution lists freedom of the press and other media a fundamental freedom.
It is a right that translates into citizens being accorded service in terms of information provision not as a privilege but as their birthright if we may put it that way.
Media Freedom from the Perspective of the Public Media
Information is vital because it empowers citizens. It is a catalyst for development. Citizens are not likely to access services or make life-saving decisions unless they are adequately and promptly informed. Citizens will not develop unless they have information that they have to use as a tool to effect their own development.
Development should be people-centred. It is not something that is abstract, something that has to fall like manna from heaven. It is about people, for the people and by the people themselves.
How would citizens develop, for instance apply for government resettlement and settlement farms if they do not know how to apply for what farm, the criteria used or requirements to qualify for resettlement and settlement?
As things stand, only officials in the ministry seem to know how one qualifies for allotment of land in terms of this scheme, on which the Government each year spends N$50 million. One grey area in the land resettlement process, in my view, is surely the non-publication of the names of the beneficiaries and this has definitely resulted in certain perceptions being created among our people.
The same goes for fish quotas, diamond concessions and lucrative tenders that seem to be the domain of a selected few, the so-called elite, the well-connected and those who serve as fronts for certain unscrupulous individuals.
The State has nothing to lose by making the names of these land and fishing quota beneficiaries public – instead it has everything to gain. Because this disclosure only enhances its credentials on transparency and openness.
It is politically expedient for governments that are popular and democratic to allow free flow of information. After all, they have nothing to fear or lose. By allowing freedom of information, governments allow citizens not to second guess their intentions and actions. That allows for a healthy relationship between the authorities and the electorate who are well informed and this eradicates that culture of economic elite.
Governments and Secrecy
Information is power. It is knowledge. Those who have information have power hence officials tend to want to control the levers of power by deciding when, how and what information to give and not to give.
Where to draw the line between classified information and media gag/blackout?
Some Liberation Movements
By their very nature, some liberation movements were somehow highly secretive.
They do not trust easily and are highly suspicious of anything and everybody.
When these liberation movements became the ruling elite they carried over these traits of secretiveness and some of those in power think they have the sole mandate to think for their minions or followers. In my honest view there is this misplaced ‘big-men, little people’ mentality despite us being independent because some of these individuals because of their elevated status in society wrongly think they could ride roughshod over the rights of others.
And naturally there appears some element of self-censorship or rather a culture of fear on the part of some of our national leaders when it comes to what they view as ‘sensitive’ issues such as the situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe. I do not think all the people in Swapo condone what is happening in that country particularly on the alleged brutalization of civilians who are deemed and seen as having cast votes for the opposition.
The closest some of our political leaders have come to condemning the abuses in Zimbabwe is to say the issue in that country is an ‘internal matter’ that should be resolved exclusively by Zimbabweans and that there should be no ‘foreign’ interference.’
Freedom of Information Act
Namibia badly needs a Freedom of Information Act. The act will not only oblige public officials to provide citizens with information but also make the provision and free flow of information mandatory if such information is of public interest. Lastly, I would like to say an informed nation is an empowered nation. And us as media should serve Namibia without any fear or favour and we should at all times strive for objectivity as opposed to subjectivity.
– This paper was presented at one of the Ombudsman Public Lectures, at the Kalahari Sands, May 08, 2008.