(1) All persons shall have the right to: freedom of expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media.
The main celebration of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2019 (WPFD) takes place in Addis Ababa on 3 May. It is therefore ironic that on the occasion of this annual milestone, the media in Namibia is struggling for its very existence.
The threat to a free media in Namibia is not because of the routine disrespect from Namibian newsmakers who refuse to do interviews and prevaricate and delay when they do answer questions, resist transparency, and bunk appointments – but because revenues have dissipated to the point that the mediums for free expression are vanishing. Media freedom cannot exist when there is no media.
As we contemplate the importance of WPFD, we consider the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index that places Namibia at the #1 spot for Africa, and #23 overall in the world. This is to be celebrated, no doubt.
Other media pundits and commentators agree that while these scores are positive, the main problem faced is that newsmakers in Namibia casually and routinely make it difficult (as noted above) for the media to practice their trade as per article 21(1) of the constitution. We agree.
However, deeper in this debate, we are convinced that the challenge to a free media in Namibia is not access to newsmakers, but rather rising costs and decline of media revenues.
President Geingob, in his recent State of Namibia Address (SONA), declared his government’s commitment to freedom of the media; he even announced the tabling of the long-delayed Access to Information Bill. These are welcomed actions to be sure. A few days later, the government’s own joint venture regional news enterprise with Zimbabwe, the Southern Times, announced it was closing its doors.
A few days later, Stanley Simataa, the Minister of Information, Communication and Technology announced the budget allocations for state owned media outlets. The managers of those very same outlets have already stated that the funds available are insufficient to report the news fairly.
Those media outlets migrating on line to avoid the rising print and publications costs will attest to the fact that the much-lauded digital advertising potential is currently under-developed and is not yet a short or medium term viable income source.
While many point to the rise of news on the internet as the reason for the decline in print media (and there is some truth in this), in developing countries such as Namibia, this is not yet necessarily the defining factor.
Continuous and inexpensive access to the internet is far from universal, particularly outside of the 4-5 larger towns/cities, and in the sprawling tin-shack suburbs of the Land of the Brave. The rising cost of data bundles, expensive smart phones and tablets (that are stolen quite regularly), varying levels of English reading skills at the grassroots level, and the shortage of consistent electricity sources (for charging gadgets or powering outdated PCs) remain today’s barriers to online news for the majority of the population.
Many businesses in remote areas still use fax machines, delivery services and snail mail with a nod to the growing digitalisation of text messages to sending and receiving short bits of information. We believe that the actual newspapers, and of course, national radio in local languages, will still be the main source of news for a significant majority of the people in Namibia for short to medium term.
It is important to know world trends towards digital news sources and move with due speed to embrace these realities, without losing sight of what is actually happening in Namibia (for the majority of the people) in the current moment.
The list of income-generating challenges for newspapers is long, but the fact remains, that the hunger for news and information is skyrocketing. People in Namibia, often read all the available print media sources AND regularly check online news services (those who can afford this), websites and social media for the latest updates. Hot news speeds around the country via text messages. The crunch that is affecting print media has not affected demand and the drive for press freedom.
As the media industry reorganises, re-assesses, and retrenches, we note the closure of not only the Southern Times, but a list of other newspapers and magazines that have either shut their doors or changed publication frequency or shifted their operational focus over the last four years. This list includes The Villager, Informanté, Namib Times, The Economist and others.
We remain convinced that the largest threat to press freedom and the responsibility to keep up with the people’s demand for information, is the drastic decline in revenues and the rising costs of publication.