7 December 2012

Namibia: Press Freedom Can Be About Life and Death


HOW encouraging that the Swapo vice president, having secured the nomination from his party as their candidate to succeed President Pohamba, is extending an olive branch to the media.

Hage Geingob was reported in some media as calling for a “new chapter of good relations with the media on government and political matters”. He was quoted saying, “I hope we can all put the past behind (us) and start afresh.” We are interested to see what he does in this regard.

Several times over the past few months during the race for his party’s vice presidency, Geingob refused to speak to this newspaper. He and the other two contenders also ignored our requests for an interview about his plans as possible future president.

Geingob was the prime minister in charge of the Cabinet secretariat in 2000 when the Sam Nujoma government banned advertising in this newspaper in an effort to cripple it and there would have been a feeling of déjà vu had he adopted a negative stance against the media.

We do not expect to be loved. For our role in informing people in order to foster progressive debates as well as exposing wrongdoing is largely unenviable. That tends to make news media “a soft target and a stalking horse,” to quote from a recent article by Jay Naidoo, a former minister in Nelson Mandela’s government. “The endgame [by those targeting the media] is delivering a battering ram of political enforcement against the people,” said Naidoo.

Many people in power and the elite would have wanted the media to be pliable and with no backbone, stance or principled existence. The Namibian has come too far to merely flow with the prevailing trend.

This paper takes a principled stance on issues and good governance, albeit while steering away from siding with or endorsing certain individuals and organisations. When our news team gets a tip for a story it goes about its work professionally and guided by ethical standards practised in open societies, concerned only with what is in the public interest.

It appears that some expect our journalists to go soft or hard depending on the prevailing atmosphere or to ‘balance out’ our reporting although such ‘balance’ or objectivity is often only in their perceptions. For example, some expected that during the Swapo vice presidency campaign we should have written the same number of news stories [i.e. for and against] about the three candidates – Geingob, Jerry Ekandjo and Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana. Some blatantly suggested that we hold on to ‘damaging’ stories until after the Swapo congress or write them before so that their opponents suffer.

The measure of our usefulness remains the public interest, no matter the subject of our journalistic endeavours or the timing.

When Pohamba shuffled his Cabinet this week he addressed the media saying, “I have invited you to the State House to inform you and through you, the Namibian nation…” This preamble suggests that our leaders appreciate the role we play in society.

However, they also have to accept that we are not only there to be used at their mercy. Citizens too, through the media, have the right to demand accountability and transparency.

Naidoo recalls top-class research pointing out that freedom of expression is an essential component of development. “In fact, a free press and the right to freedom of expression will stir public debate on issues of food shortages, corruption and maladministration resulting in public pressure that brings changes.

“In the bad days of Apartheid it was global public reporting and the work of a small but fearless independent media in South Africa that often meant the difference between life and death for many of us as activists in the resistance movement.

“A free press and robust civil society is not a neoliberal middle-class issue. It is about human rights and the struggle of the poor for its constitutional rights to quality education, health and service delivery,” said Naidoo.

Geingob and his comrades know the same is true of Namibia. Naidoo buttressed his point by stating that Nelson Mandela famously said that “the day the ANC does to us what the Apartheid government did, we should do to the ANC what we did to the Apartheid government”.

Therefore, our leaders should not view us as the enemy but as a necessary counter-balance in our quest for prosperity for Namibians, especially the poor and most vulnerable.

We look forward to the newly reappointed prime minister accepting our role to hold him and his team accountable.

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