Right to Information, Media Freedom

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By Eberhard Hofmann

Previous themes in this sequence:

Right to accountability and transparency;

To a living constitution;

To electricity.

And tonight the right to information/freedom of the media. These are topics concerning the quality of life in a democratic society. And we claim that Namibia is one, particularly since 21 March 1990.

Media practitioners, particularly journalists hunting down their daily deadlines sometimes become text blind. That is why we need to see ourselves in the mirror of public opinion and critique, as it is the public whom we serve day by day. But we are privileged that most of the time – not all the time – we have the news and information first, before anyone else. Sometimes we have too much of it then we have to decide what goes in and what stays out. That is when we decide according to our written or unwritten value system, also called a code of ethics. In any media institution worth its name the value system will be centred upon the common good.

In Namibia, the common good is enshrined in a fine constitution and by and large in Christian values. Both systems, as we know, are exposed to daily abuse, as you will easily read in any newspaper.

Next to public critique of the media, which obviously changes in time with changes in the political regime and public climate, there are international rankings of media freedom in particular countries conducted by institutions like MISA, Reporter ohne Grenzen and by the German Bertelsmann Publishing House, to mention but a few.

Let me give you the ranking of Namibia the organization Reporter ohne Grenzen allocated to our country. They list the world’s 169 countries, numbering from rank one, totally free at the top led by Norway and Iceland to the rock bottom of 169 occupied by Eritrea of the Horn of Africa. Incidentally, three countries, being celebrated as intimate friends of the Namibian government are also found right at the bottom: North Korea (168), Cuba (165) and China (163). Namibia features quite high on the scale, sharing rank 25 with Mauritius, beating France (31) and even South Africa (43). Incidentally, two former eastern block countries, Estonia and Slovakia are found at the top at 3 and 4.

We might feel quite comfortable about our rating, but as journalists we have to question the accuracy and the reliability of the jury allocating these rankings. On the face of it, it seems as if all is well with the Namibia media scene. Of course we want to play in the upper league. On the face of it and seen from outside all looks well but we know better.

There are blemishes and there are threats, concerning the print media and the public broadcaster.

A governmental advertising ban applies on one of the daily newspapers.

Newspapers are resilient and can handle this. But government has failed to communicate to the media on which law and regulation such ban could be based. What is more the media and the public need to know which criteria and code of ethics government applies in such a case. When I asked the former Minister of Information and Broadcasting in her capacity as spokesperson of Government on a media platform, she declined to respond.

Government also has decreed unilaterally that advertising of state tenders is only to be conducted through the government newspaper which is a vehicle funded by the taxpayer and not by the governing party.

News and media houses normally are long-term institutions issuing publications with continuity. Those that have not survived you will find in the archives. Against the background of epochs and eras, news media and their editors observe, probe, warn against dangerous developments, even predict some evolvement.

With independence Namibia found and cultivated a new and revitalized culture of public dialogue. But lately we see signs of fatigue in this very culture, which becomes obvious in more frequent hate speech and the evocation of diffuse enemy imagery.

One among more recent examples is the supposed threat to Namibia or other African countries by “white supremacist” systems, as offered by the president of the National Union of Namibian Workers. I ask myself what use such vague threat imagery is to the public, apart from conjuring up neo-racism. It reminds me of Nazi racist propaganda which blamed all ills suffered by post World War One Germany on the Jews. We know too well where persistent hate speech against a minority or ethnic group can lead to.

From the media side we notice a new trend towards hate speech and a mindset in bondage of propaganda clich??????’??

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