Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, an outstanding book by Daron Acemoglu, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James Robinson, a political scientist at Harvard University is an excellent reference if you are interested in the world of policy, institutions, poverty and development. Acemoglu and Robinson chronicle with great clarity what accounts for differences in incomes and standards of living between the rich countries of the world – France, Germany, the USA – and the rest of the world, including Sub-Saharan Africa. A key entry point used by the authors is the city of Nogales, cut in half by a fence, with one part located in Arizona, Santa Cruz County, USA and the other part in Sonora, Mexico. Notwithstanding the fact that the city of two halves is populated by people of the same cultural background, their fortunes differ significantly, with Nogales, Arizona safe and prosperous for its citizens, while Nogales, Sonora remains poor and crime afflicted. The reason as the authors explain lies in access to different institutions. Nogales, Sonora has access to the political institutions of Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona is led through the political institutions of the United States.
The lesson for Namibia, specifically the media, is that the competencies of institutions of a country do matter, and greatly account for our prosperity on the one hand, and their failures would perpetuate poverty, crime and underdevelopment on the other.
0n 13 December, President Hage Geingob, flanked by an orchestra of cabinet ministers and advisors provided a review of the year that is passing into history. Presidential advisor John Steytler, delivered a solid presentation, highlighting activities and outcomes against targets and indicators in the Harambee Prosperity Plan (HPP). I shall not raise specific hits and misses in that review here.
What should be laid bare is the deplorable failure of the media as an institution to use such opportunities to report, educate and analyse what is of essence to the broader public out there – the developmental aspects of the conversation. Namibians today are none the wiser if HPP in year two is moving us inches forward to the sworn road of prosperity. The headlines and editorials the following morning and thereafter (with tiny exceptions) left many who rely on the media for information without wisdom about the state of HPP. Yet, the HPP is a central plank in the implementation of the political manifesto of the current administration.
Instead, the media high traffic focussed the headlines on the pettiness, thereby denying the audience the opportunity to look at the midpoint of the Geingob presidency as an opportunity to gauge government capability to deliver.
If you focus on the headlines, which is what the audience does, you would not distinguish if we had made progress or not in the vital sectors of water, sanitation, education, energy, roads, and housing. Effective service delivery has a profound impact on the structure of our country, and must remain a crucial and integral part in media reporting subsequent to an annual press briefing and self-review of government performance. Failure to do so begs the question as to whether the Namibian media is sufficiently accountable to the public. Sadly, when you put the sums together, without question, the media is getting it wrong on accountability to the
What should the audience be entitled to from the media after an important press briefing of the type we witnessed last week? Should we be fed with inflated doses of phrases and commentary in the question and answer session? These questions are not only essential for an audience – but they are central to the press room as it decides on the headlines the following morning. The answers you arrive at would demonstrate that the media is failing on accountability to the public as a stakeholder. It is also mistaken on what it thinks a president should account for. Yes to accountability – no to nitpicking. And a big no to a creepy culture of voyeurism that undermines the dignity of others.
Out of voyeurism, aggressive journalism has taken centre-stage with the objective to embarrass or to demean public officials, and to entertain (and not educate) a public on a diet of telenovelas. Consequentially, as media audiences, there is a worrying picture, if not a bleak one.
Flickers of excellence remain in the ranking of Namibia by Reporters Without Borders as the country with the freest press in Africa. It is not a reflection of quality in journalism, but of the choices of government not to harass or imprison journalists.
Journalism in Namibia now conjures an image of hopelessness at the socio-political and economic conversation in the country. It is sinking under the weight of sensational headlines and not journalistic excellence, the values of factuality, balance and clarity. It is not exercising privilege responsibly. Worryingly, it is neglecting the balance between rights and obligations, between positive and negative liberties. What could be the way forward?
First, the media should be made aware that a technically more capable state should be accompanied by an equally competent media. It cannot demand world-class performance on the part of other institutions, and not itself live up to world-class expectations. The journalists dispatched to cover issues must be as knowledgeable, informed (if not more) and qualified as those they question and interview. The failure to do so is what generates sensational career-threatening captions and not vigorous and healthy policy headlines.
Second, the self-regulatory frameworks, the Editor’s Forum and the media ombudsman are a waning phantom, and the effectiveness in self-regulation of media and journalistic performance is a debate worth opening. It is in the public interest to set higher standards in evidence-based reporting, and training of journalists.
The failure of the media to get accountability right is crystallising the need for government regulation. If that is the direction to guarantee the public interest, and to push for media institutions to be on par with the best in the world, we should walk that path.
• Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a visiting fellow at the Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI), Sciences Po Paris. He holds a PhD in international relations from the Sorbonne.