3 May 2012

Namibia: Does Freedom of the Press Exist?


Ngamane Karuaihe — Upi, known affectionately as Uncle Gep, is a radio personality, gender activist and relationship advisor.

He raised eyebrows when he became, probably the first Otjiherero-speaking man, to adopt his wife's surname "Karuaihe" after marriage. He has a liberated view on the issue of double surnaming for both male and female. On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, New Era's Magreth Nunuhe spoke to Karuaihe-Upi, who is a Researcher and Programme Manager at the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) regarding his views on press freedom in Namibia and the general climate in the country when it comes to freedom of expression.

In your opinion, is freedom of speech an illusion or is it a reality in Namibia? Is it there? Is it functioning?

"It is a reality that it is there, but in acknowledging ourselves as being empowered enough to make use of it - it is not really there. It ties in with that whole image of Namibia. We have good laws but they are not implemented. We know of our rules and rights and regulations but we don't enact them. People do not take time to really question. The same people who write SMSs to the different newspapers and express themselves strongly - why can't they just write a whole page and elaborate their point? We need a whole lot more for people to go from writing two line SMSs to a whole page and making their stand known.

Do you think that government and civil society promotes freedom of speech in terms of making people aware that they have the right to express themselves?

"Government is good at quoting that we have these laws - that's good. But in terms of accessibility towards Members of Parliament or whoever has authority - that's not really there. Yes, I have the freedom to associate; I have the freedom to express myself. Since I need empowerment, can I walk into the Prime Minister's office and ask anything? What's the procedure? You don't get to hear about that. The person on the street or the layman as we call them, do not have a clear picture that I can go from here and call (Joël) Kaapanda's (Minister of Information and Communication Technology) office and be able to talk to him and ask him what he meant by what he said. As much as we say freedom of expression, freedom of the press, it's like those (provisions) are also untouchable and that's a clash of values that we need to unpack."

Do you think people understand what freedom of speech is or better still do they understand the Constitution and its worth?

"No, not based on what I know. I agree with some people who say that the Constitution should become an actual subject in school, and should be offered from Grade 3 or 4 in such a way that whenever someone is finishing Grade 12, they know the Constitution back and forth. And they know it ... not to see it as a chance to fight government, but how to work best with government. We are still a very traditional nation, like some would say gender issues are for the corporate world. If you are in the office and you are working gender mainstreaming, gender this, gender that - no problem. No problem. Just don't take it to the holy fire or to the funeral - don't take it to the slaughtering of a goat or cow in the village. No. So, it's like we know, but we don't know. There are people who know how to act culturally more than how to act civilly in a democratic way. So, there is this blind loyalty to political parties, to ethnicity, to tribalism - tribalism in the form of not being a tribalist, but being tribal.

"No, I can't do that, I am a Herero". There is still that clash of values where people still see the Constitution and the whole governing structure as foreign to them. Those are the people with power, the elected or selected and you shouldn't really bother them. Instead of bothering them, you should receive them as celebrities. It pains me every time to see public servants who do not serve the public. Instead the public serves them. You come to the village and you are received as a King or Queen and they can't question you. You are there to open a new clinic and the attitude is "we will just listen to you and ululate."

How do we define respect? If you are my mother and you are stepping on my toes, isn't there a way that I can respectfully tell you, you are stepping on my toes? To Namibians it's like a total no. You can't even mention you have toes. So, you can be anonymous through SMSs or be one of the few brave souls who actually attach a name to an article, and then be sidelined or victimized. We still have that thing that you can't attack government. Even opposition parties just say they will do the lousy job better than government, but they don't say we will do something different."

Do you think the ruling party's dominance on the economic and social front perhaps stifles freedom of speech?

"Not to me. When Hidipo Hamutenya (RDP President) donates equipment to a school and the people around there say it's better to stay poor and suffering than to take from the opposition, that's stifling democracy. "If he is an enemy, he is an enemy, whether he was with Swapo before," that's the belief. Even if he is offering medication that can save lives, he is declared an enemy. Don't take his stuff. So, the stifling is there. It is unfortunate to hear people say poverty is rife in Namibia, but the most people who are suffering are from the north but they stick to the ruling party through thick and thin. Even with no evidence, I can say that people get sidelined in jobs "who you know or don't know". People are being sidelined because they are seen as RDP sympathisers."

Why do you think people are afraid to speak out?

"People are afraid to speak out because your speaking out to a certain degree is still linked to your stomach - politics of the belly. The skewed distribution of resources in Namibia plays a major role. If we were all well fed, I think there would be a change in the dynamics of power. But because I am hungry and the person who is promising me food is that one, I cannot offend that person. Yes, I may feel differently, but I cannot speak out. That fear is there. If we were to operate on a level where people are recognized for their skills, resources, talent and the whole government structure or private sector was mixed and matched based on merit or standards, people would speak out more and say, "no, I am not dependent on you".

Do you think that the government has become more intolerant of criticism?

"I think government, overall, has always been tolerant, basing it on the last seven years I have been around, but there are people who want to punish you for criticizing government. But we don't see government shooting at people like in South Africa or somewhere else. Our government is one of the most tolerant. Yes, being human, they also get irritated when they get criticized at times. I am still to get concrete evidence of someone losing her job or having her house bombed because government is not tolerant. "

Do you see a situation in the future where government could perhaps start silencing people, destroying people's homes or that people could vanish?

"I hope not. Anything is possible in life. You never know when the tolerant President is to retire, who may take over and new blood comes in."

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