Namibia: Leading the Way Where World Press Freedom Day Began

World Press Freedom Day 2016 Theme
3 May 2016

Windhoek — Presidential economic advisor Dr. John Steytler sees part of his job as ensuring Namibia has the freest media in the world. "We are already number one on the African continent," he says, "and we are number seventeen in the world" – citing rankings by Reporters Without Borders.

The roots of World Press Freedom Day began in Namibia's capital 25 years ago, when the Windhoek Declaration on global press freedom was crafted at a seminar for African journalists organized by Unesco – the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In December 1993, the UN General Assembly declared 3 May – the date of the Windhoek Declaration – as World Press Freedom Day.

Two weeks ago in New York, President Geingob – in town to sign a historic climate accord at the United Nations – called on Steytler during a Council on Foreign Relations session. There, and in an interview last week with AllAfrica in Washington DC, Steytler explained why the country where the declaration leading to #WPFD2016 was launched wants to be the global leader in press freedom.

"We believe the press, the fourth estate, is crucial in promoting transparency," he says, "Our aim is to be seen as the most transparent nation on the African continent." Achieving the president's ambitious goal to eradicate poverty requires a government and institutions that are trusted by the people he says.

"I want to paraphrase President Geingob," Steytler says. "We do these things not because we want to be seen as 'the most' or 'the best'. We do it because we believe these are the right things to do. We just don't do it to show off. We believe without transparency and accountability, there will not be trust."

Steytler cites the open meetings policy of the administration and insists that despite occasional complaints by officials about media coverage, Namibian journalists can be confident of their rights. "President Geingob is very committed to protecting the freedom of the press," he says, "and he has really revolutionized how we operate."

Namibia has a history of media challenging authority. Under founding editor Gwen Lister, the Namibian won widespread recognition for its courage during South African rule. Violent attacks on the newspaper and its staff included fire-bombings and teargas attacks and a South African plot to poison Lister.

Namibian Editor-In Chief Tangeni Amupadhi, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, doesn't have those worries. In fact, on Easter weekend he thanked both the government and the private sector for supporting the 15th Namibia Cup, sponsored by the paper.

This year the competition brought young footballers from all over the country to the far north, which most of them had never seen, for a competition Amupadhi called "nation building". You can't build a nation, he said in a Namibian video, without getting people together, especially young people. That purpose complements President Geingob's goal of 'one Namibian house, where no one is left out'.

At the same time, Amupadhi's Namibian continues the paper's watchdog tradition, regularly blasting both government and business. An editorial celebrating press freedom day - 'Namibia's gift to the world' - warns that establishment of a state media monitoring body, which the country's information minister said he may propose for Namibia, could "damage its stature as one of the most free media environments in Africa and the world."

President Geingob, although he may complain about press coverage he doesn't think is fair or accurate, is unwavering in his support for freedom of speech for all, including media. "I tell people", the president said at the Council on Foreign Relations, "yes, make noise, complain. The moment you keep quiet, I will know there's something wrong."

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