26 April 2019

Namibia: Government Ownership Perverts Media

Photo: UNESCO
The World Press Freedom Day poster for 2019.
editorial

THE IMPENDING DEMISE of The Southern Times newspaper, with its death knell set to be sounded during Press Freedom Day week, opens up a moment to reflect on the role of governments in the crucial function of disseminating news.

The weekly newspaper's death is proof that the government has no business owning and controlling news media. The hidden agenda would always prevail, whatever gloss is applied to make something look great.

And we could not have articulated this better than the founding editor of The Southern Times, Moses Magadza, in a valediction The Namibian published on 25 April 2019.

"What I know for certain, however," states Magadza whenever asked what The Southern Times could do differently, "is that there is still space for a regional newspaper with teeth. One that does not shy away from speaking truth to power; offer constructive criticism, and hold regional and continental bodies to account to make them work better for the citizens of SADC."

If only... Magadza left The Southern Times in 2008 amidst political shenanigans at a newspaper which the Namibian and Zimbabwean governments purportedly set up to "tell the African story from an African perspective".

Just who would oppose such good intentions?

The unspoken truth is that The Southern Times did not live up to such stated intentions. It was started in 2004 as a propaganda tool by then Zimbabwean information minister Jonathan Moyo, who left South Africa like a fugitive after the leading weekend Sunday Times ran a string of exposes about his fraudulent activities and financial scandals.

The Zimbabwe government adamantly wanted to name the paper The New Sunday Times, but the long-established South African title threatened legal action. They settled on The Southern Times.

Zimbabwe roped in Namibia, and Magadza was spot-on in wondering whether the newspaper only managed to survive because of a "warm relationship" between founding president Sam Nujoma and Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in a popular coup in 2017.

Over the years, the perception of a propaganda tool, especially for Zimbabwe, became self-evident. Hence, failure to grow its readership, circulation and advertising revenue; never mind that no other SADC country (not even dictatorships like Swaziland, who may have needed publicity) bothered to put a stamp to it.

In the end, despite some goodwill by professional journalists who wanted to work there with independent mindsets, the role of government and politics doomed the purported intention of Africans telling their own story.

The Southern Times drew neither audience nor market-driven revenue. Its demise is a clear indication that the more than N$100 million which the Namibian government pumped into the project over 15 years was flushing taxpayers' money down the drain.

We hope this is a lesson our politicians can always apply, crucially about the government's role in propping up news media. If at all they should be using public resources to compete in the news sector, let it be with the intention of promoting plurality of information rather than (mis)using journalists to do their propaganda work.

The world is full of examples of state-funded news organisations that thrive in terms of drawing huge audiences, compete fairly with independent or private media, and even garner self-sustaining market-related revenue.

Underlying those success stories are genuine intentions to inform the public without fear of reprisal (including withholding funds), but through guaranteed editorial independence. Sadly, Namibia is a long way from having politicians who appreciate that the fourth estate is all about the public good. NBC, for example, would better serve citizens as an independently managed public broadcaster in fair competition rather than a government-controlled entity.

With the internet and related advanced information technology, Namibia will be well-advised to strengthen the quality of news if it chooses to use taxpayer resources, rather than entities aimed at winning the propaganda race.

Moreover, the government's role is to enable -- to put in place a genuinely intended access to information law that obligates free provision of information to citizens, mainly through the news media, rather than try to manage and control the fourth estate. The current approach is a lose-lose situation. Neither the government, nor the people, benefit; and our democracy is only weakened in the process.

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