Media freedom under threat

11 November 2016
Author  
Either government supports the Constitution and the existence of a free media or it does not; there are no half measures in this regard.
We have believed that our government does support this.  In fact, President Geingob in a speech at the investor’s conference in New York in September said, “As a former freedom fighter, press freedom is one of the things we fought for. Even when I was prime minister the first time, I used to assure one of the stalwart editors in Namibia that government would never compromise on the freedom of the press.  Therefore, we will not rein in on the freedoms of the press.” 
Geingob made a similar statement when he rebuked Information Minister Tjekero Tweya for making statements tantamount to imposing government supervision on the media.
Back in August, he said:  “It is not government policy to control media freedom in Namibia…Namibia’s liberation struggle was also about freedom of media, freedom of movement and free speech, emphasizing it will be contradictory for the government to say it is going to control and regulate the media…it is important to note that [Namibia] has the freest media in Africa; it is ranked 17th in the world.”
And now, here we are again, puzzling out mixed messages from the government led by President Geingob regarding a September 20th Cabinet directive where reportedly, government will now give preferential treatment to New Era and nbc in terms of access to government information and advertisements. 
The statement is reported to say: “Cabinet direct[s] all government offices/ministries/agencies, including local authorities, to prioritise the dissemination of information and advertisement[s] through New Era and the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation.”
The long-term specific ban on a local daily newspaper some years ago was direct and unequivocal – there was no doubt about the punitive intent of that action.  This effort appears indirect and is targeting all non-government-owned media houses in the country.
In light of the president’s clear comments above correctly in support of the Constitution and the principles of media freedom, we have grave concerns about the Cabinet resolution that in fact, hinders that very same media freedom.
Government (including agencies, ministries, and regional and local offices) is one of the top media advertisers in the country; GRN knows this and we, in the media know this.  Any action to dilute that advertisement impacts on media houses; this should not be denied or ignored. 
More importantly, the news of the day often includes government agencies, officials and ministries, and that information belongs to all who are in the country and must not be the domain of those whose reporting ‘suits’ the powers-that-be.  Freedom of the media is freedom of thoughts and expression. To hinder that is against the spirit if not the letter of the law in the Constitution. 
Most of us in the media continually struggle to get government officials and ministers who are responsible to the public to call us back, answer questions, keep time at media briefings, keep appointments, and give accurate data.
Now, with the ‘cover’ of a Cabinet resolution effectively granting a monopoly on public information to the State-owned media, no officials or civil servants need answer to the privately owned media houses at all.  The mantra will become:  “I can’t answer your queries about that; I can only give the information to the New Era or nbc.”  Is that a free media as espoused by President Geingob?  We don’t think so.
We do not believe the entire government wishes to limit press freedom in Namibia.  But we do believe that the work of maintaining a free democracy is hard and that many in power don’t quite understand that point.
The media will not always say what those in power wish us to say, nor should we.  We need to focus on the truth of each verified story we print.  The media indeed, must be responsible, credible and professional. 
There is a media ombudsman and a media watchdog council to hold us to task on these points.  There are the Namibian courts and laws about defamation and slander that can be applied in any court case submitted.  We support such checks and balances.
But we do not support regulatory or ‘persuasive’ attempts to skew those checks-and-balances by mandating that government prioritize its own media mouthpieces when answering questions from the media and giving information. 
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