Media politics, the system of politics in which politicians seek to gain office and to conduct politics while in office, through communication that reaches citizens through and by the mass media, was an effective tool during the colonial era.
Both the apartheid colonial administration and Swapo heavily relied on media politics, by then popularly known as winning the hearts and minds (WHAM, aka propaganda), to relay messages to the general public in favour of their vested interests, namely perpetuation of colonialism on the one hand, or expediting freedom and self-determination on the other.
Today, as then, media politics still play a central role in Namibia. At independence and two decades after, Swapo has been at the receiving end of media politics. Given the weakness of the opposition parties, the media took the place of opposition to Swapo. Though that trend seems to continue, the opposition parties have now become targets, portrayed as nothing else but political crybabies who only complain and react to government policies and pronouncements.
The central actors in media politics are the politicians, journalists and citizens. Politicians, both ruling and opposition, use the mass media to mobilise public support or advance their agenda. Media practitioners use media politics to produce stories that attract big audiences in the name of freedom of the media/press. The general public, on the other hand are left to feed on heavily curtailed information. The national debate is often directed by the media through their role as gatekeepers. The media determines whether or not the general public hear the whole story or just a fraction they deem important.
Media politics has become a source of constant tension among the three actors. Politicians would like journalists to act as a neutral conveyor belt for their statements and press releases. Some of these statements often carry about four to five different focal points, making it difficult for the media to allocate space on each topic separately.
The public wants, as indicated, to monitor politics and hold politicians accountable with minimal effort. And because there is a surfeit of politicians and journalists vying for public attention in a competitive market, the public tends not to get the kind of political communication it deserves or wants.
Notwithstanding the fact that opposition politics is the weakness link in our democratic dispensation, it is important that the opposition voice is given space in media politics, commensurate with the size of those who voted for it. Reducing the opposition to a cabal of complainants is not healthy for our democracy, especially if the opposition makes some realistic contribution to the national debate. A different perspective on matters of national importance is healthy and would serve our democratic dispensation better.
Recently, members of parliament, from both sides of the political divide, welcomed a motion by Swanu on honouring the martyrs of genocide and those of the liberation struggle. This demonstrated that not everything that the opposition spews is political rhetoric or propaganda.
Last weekend the president of the DTA, McHenry Venaani, offered some interesting, thought-provoking alternatives to the food bank debate. His proposals to increase food production and ensure food security as an alternative to the food banks, was swept under the carpet by the media which instead told us that Venaani complained about the lack of consultation with the opposition on the development of the Harambee Prosperity Plan.
This was merely an introduction of his speech whose main focus was on alternative policies and programmes proposed by the DTA. The picture we got from that speech, as delivered to us by the media, was that Venaani (the opposition) is yet again complaining and lacks anything tangible to propose as an alternative. This is what those who did not attend that meeting or have access to Venaani’s speech would conclude.
Reports of this nature impose a responsibility upon media consumers, and it is with them that the responsibility of judgment ultimately should and does lie. The media should confirm and report news as is, and weed out propaganda that isn’t news. It is up to the media consumers to evaluate the news as presented and make their own judgment. That is the citizen’s responsibility and his/her privilege in a democratic society. Censorship of either the opposition or government only serves to deprive the public of vital information to make informed decisions.
It is unfortunate that the public are always given half-truths on national debates from both the government and the opposition. Through media politics, the media has arrogated itself the right to shape rather than mirror the political landscape. The media profession demands that news stories are, at all times, accurate, balanced and devoid of comment, conjecture and falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation.
While the media is not wholly responsible for the opposition’s lack of focus, the opposition need to shoulder some blame for making the media portray them as having no alternatives to government policies and programmes.
The opposition parties in Namibia, contrary to what they say, have access to considerable resources. They just lack a marketing strategy and skills to mobilise those resources; they lack administrative experience and capacity to mobilise their supporters.
It is not handed on a silver platter. If they are committed to building a moderate and accountable alternative to Swapo that is both sustainable and relevant, they need to abandon their political fiefdoms and firstly identify the basis of their opposition, engineer and articulate their agenda on that basis and rally around a political programme.
- Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.