Namibia: Instilling Fear to Silence the Outspoken

GAGGING a journalist employed at a taxpayer-funded news organisation has demonstrated growing intolerance by the governing elite towards critical voices.

Worryingly, the censure of Edward Muumbu over the past week by state news agency Nampa, because he apparently made president Hage Geingob nervous at a press conference, is the latest in a trend to silence government employees deemed outspoken or those who act against rampant corruption and the theft of public resources.

Even if presidential spokesperson Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari ramps up the decibels when denying that the Presidency has anything to do with the gagging of journalists, there's enough evidence to suggest that those in high office are complicit in muzzling the outspoken. Most examples relate to the Fishrot scandal although not exclusively.

Geingob set the tone in December 2019 when he took aim at three of his Cabinet ministers (Calle Schlettwein, Tom Alweendo and Leon Jooste), telling them in a Cabinet meeting to resign.

"You are behaving like you are cleaner than others. You are criticising how the [Fishrot] case has been handled," said Geingob, adding: "If you are not happy with how the case is being handled, then why don't you just resign?"

In fact, none of the ministers had criticised how the case was being handled. They merely expressed moral outrage on social media and called for tough action against the looters.

After a lull, there has been a flurry of action against the outspoken over the past two months: Lead Fishrot investigator Nelius Becker was transferred to a position of impotence - to head the police forensic unit, a key institution that requires hardcore science skills, which Becker does not remotely possess.

That was followed by the removal of Hannu Shipena as executive director of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). Shipena regularly said the fight against corruption must be strengthened. A week or two before Shipena's removal, finance minister Iipumbu Shiimi was on social media castigating the ACC administrator for complaining that the lack of funding could hamper investigations.

And this week, Hengari issued a press release unabashedly saying that firing former health minister Bernard Haufiku was in no small part due to him "speaking out of turn" and without authorisation.

Geingob recently tore into Swapo MPs for not defending the government despite being in the majority. This was clearly aimed at leaving no room for contrarian views and to make lawmakers meek in their legislative role.

Geingob may have achieved his goal - Cabinet members this year have been less publicly vocal on corruption.

These latest incidents are a reminder that we are too close for comfort to autocratic states like China, where medical doctors, journalists and researchers who tried to warn the public about Covid-19 were gagged and jailed.

Silencing critical voices comes a long way in Swapo. At the state-funded broadcaster, NBC, critical programmes such as 'Open File' have been taken off air in 2014.

While we should not tolerate corruption, Swapo and other parties should be able to tolerate divergent views within their ranks. Ultimately, allowing competing views is a sign of strength. More than that, we need to respect and strengthen our hard-won independence.

We do not want - nor can we afford - our democracy to fall silent. The president and the ruling party need to shake off the outdated Cold War culture of weaponising fear.

Intolerance breeds intolerance. The consequences are manifold. While silence and powerlessness go hand in hand, they are dangerous bedmates. Look no further than Zimbabwe.

Namibians who cherish freedom of speech and value access to information (thus knowledge) as a prerequisite to individual or group development would be well advised to express moral outrage at this systematic erosion.

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