‘Little presidents’ syndrome

16 December 2016
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According to President Hage Geingob’s much talked about Harambee Prosperity Plan, a new culture of efficiency and accountability is critical to fostering the change that the country wishes to see.
It also says that accountability is a key cornerstone of effective governance.
This is why, when President Hage Geingob initially announced that his administration will have an open door policy to the media, we applauded his initiative as a refreshing step in the right direction.
The president has also repeatedly said that it is not Government policy to control media freedom in Namibia.
But just as the Harambee Prosperity Plan cautions, Namibians we are good at planning, but weak when it comes to implementation.
The reason we say so is that, in our view, State House has failed to engage the media properly.
The purpose of these press conferences is for the president to engage us as stakeholders, we assume, and for us as media to convey his message to his constituents and the country at large. However, the president has increasingly become antagonistic in his behaviour and utterances.
His conduct, composure and presentation is unprofessional, obnoxious and plain rude. He is developing a tendency of defensiveness and polarisation, which is quite frankly, unbecoming of a true statesman.
When pressed with questions that make him uncomfortable, instead of maturely answering them or deferring them, he becomes insulting, and ridicules journalists instead. At times he shouts and the real answers become incomprehensible.
While his press conferences seemingly tick all the right boxes, and gives Geingob’s administration a veil of transparency, when everything is said and done, does State House really engage journalists?
Do journalists really benefit from these so-called engagements? Are journalists any wiser after attending these press conferences at State House? The answer is no.
What we have basically observed at every media engagement or press conference, particularly the one this week, are insults targeted at journalists or independent media, which make us wonder whether the president thinks he is a king or monarch, whose actions should not be questioned by mere journalists.
Newspapers are now referred to as enemies of the president and accused of having ulterior motives, while in fact we should be treated as important stakeholders in the Namibian House.
Does the president need reminding that no-one is more Namibian than the other, even if that person holds a high political office?
As journalists, we are concerned about the direction that our country is taking, and where we feel that certain things must change or be done differently, we should be able to say so, without fear of being labelled enemies of the State.
His failure to engage appears not only confined to press conferences. The way that the president dealt with the whole Bernadus Swartbooi saga, shows that he also failed to communicate or engage properly with the deputy minister, leading to the current impasse, which has become a source of embarrassment for the president.
More troubling is the behaviour of Information, Communication and Technology Minister, Tjekero Tweya, who since his appointment in that important portfolio, has behaved as a media hangman. 
The president should listen to the advice of the outgoing Ghanaian President, John D. Mahama, who realised only after his defeat recently that “the praise-singing sycophants, who act on the dictates of their stomachs, are only specialised at telling you what you want to hear”.
Mahama continued in his concession speech, delivered this week, to say: “Unfortunately, I did not listen to voices of reason. Our elders say a disease that will kill a man first breaks sticks into his ears.”
If our president cannot see journalists as partners, and accord them the professional courtesy that they deserve, then what is the point of the media engagements at State House?
State House might as well start issuing press releases, instead of lining up journalists to insult them.
The Paris-based organisation, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), argues that heads of state and government leaders, who publicly scorn journalists, violate the principle of press freedom.
The press freedom watchdog denounces the “little presidents”, who publicly attack journalists and media outlets, arguing that journalists who are treated in a contemptuous, insulting, defamatory or racist manner are put under “terrible pressure... just for doing their job”.
RWB’s Secretary General, Christophe Deloire, says: “A threshold is crossed when a Head of State lets loose a stream of verbal abuse against media personnel... How can journalists function normally if the State that is supposed to guarantee their safety is headed by a person who holds them up to contempt, bullies them and threatens them, opening the way to abuses against the media that go unpunished?”
A global survey by RWB, of instances of presidential attacks on journalists, reveals that some political leaders do not tolerate disagreement or debate. Others identify expressions of doubt as forms of sedition or even as foreign interference.
The truth of the matter is that these kinds of attacks and insults against journalists should be nipped in the bud here in Namibia, which has consistently enjoyed global accolades for its press freedom environment.
Bullying and insulting journalists is no laughing matter and there should be no sniggers and giggles when colleagues are pushed against the ropes by irate politicians at media conferences. This profession needs to take a stand going forward, and so does civil society as a whole.
In fledgling nations like ours, the media must be able to assert its role in buttressing and deepening democracy.
 
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