The editorial room of Die Republikein, the largest Afrikaans-language newspaper in Namibia

Namibian media the freest in Africa – but there are threats

Namibia has been much praised for its relatively high degree of media freedom. Researcher Henning Melber, who has a background as a Namibian journalist, concurs with the image of Namibian media as the freest in Africa. “But this freedom is not an internalized part of the political culture”, he says, implying that a change of political power could be devastating.
Today is May 3rd, and UNESCO has declared this day the World Press Freedom Day. This year’s celebration will be a little bit extra to mark the 25th anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists on May 3, 1991, in the capital of newly independent Namibia. Namibian journalist Gwen Lister, founder of the country’s largest daily newspaper, The Namibian, has been invited as key-note speaker to the UNESCO celebrations today in Helsinki.
Henning Melber, Senior Advisor at the Nordic Africa Institute, has a background as journalist. In fact, his very first employment was with a daily newspaper in Windhoek, already back in 1972. He was one of the participants at the 1991 Windhoek Conference, and he has ever since been a well-known debater in Namibian media. In the 90’s he was a regular guest at TV talk-shows and the moderator of a weekly economic roundtable at the national radio station NBC. Melber has been following the Namibian media development also in his research and is still today a columnist for The Namibian. We posed a few questions to him on this day of great celebrations.
Is there free media in Namibia today?
Media in Namibia has remained to a remarkable degree free. Investigative journalism is possible without fear for life or imprisonment, which compares favorably with most other African countries. Namibia ranks highest on the index of media freedom among African countries by Reporters without Borders. In the latest index, Namibia was ranked number 17, placing the country higher than the UK (no 38), the US (no 41) and many other Western democracies. This is an achievement to be proud of. 
What influence do media have in Namibia today?
Although free and independent, Namibian newspapers have relatively few and mainly urban readers and the impact is not so strong. Policy makers are often non-responsive to media inquiries, cooperate rather seldom and have no high esteem of independent journalism. 
Have there been clashes between the media and the power?
In the late 1990s, the government banned advertising in The Namibian because they considered the newspaper to be too critical in its reporting. This ban was lifted a few years ago. In April this year, Namibian police temporarily detained and interrogated two Japanese journalists and confiscated their equipment. They were in Namibia to do research on what is suspected to be a North Korean ammunition factory. Although a one-time event, and very brief, the detention of the journalists raises question marks regarding the relation between the media and the power. It was also, by all right, heavily condemned by MISA, the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
What are your thoughts on the future of press freedom in Namibia?
That's a long guess! But like in other countries the independence of the media needs to be jealously guarded and protected. Namibia has many independent print media but a very limited market. They are all to some extent dependent upon advertisements to finance their operations beyond individual subscriptions. This allows government to exert pressure, and at times a certain degree of self-censorship seems to exist. The political office bearers in SWAPO, the governing party in Namibia since the independence in 1990, are not always as tolerant as they want to be seen. But it is difficult to predict if this will impact negatively on the working conditions. As long as SWAPO remains the uncontested hegemonic party, they will most likely be able and willing to live with critical media reporting. After all, they too take pride of the fact that Namibia is considered to have the freest media in Africa. But if the political hegemony of the former liberation movements is under threat, as we could witness in Zimbabwe, the media freedom will most likely be sacrificed without hesitation. It is not an internalized part of the political culture.

“Banning The Namibian made the government look paranoid”

Comment from Iina Soiri, Director of the Nordic Africa Institute

I concur with Henning Melber that Namibia has a high degree of media freedom and even of higher quality compared to many other African countries. A problem is of course that not many Namibians master English well. As a regular reader of The Namibian since the early 90’s, I can only say that Namibians have benefitted greatly from this newspaper that since the start has continued to be independent and critical. Its banning in the 90’s was a sad incident that made the Namibian government of the day look rather paranoid, and paradoxically the newspaper even more attractive. The founder Gwen Lister is of course the embodiment of The Namibian, but there have been many other journalists and media professionals that have made the newspaper as good as it is. And there are of course other free and independent newspapers and journals. I would just like to mention one, Insight Namibia, a monthly publication of which I was a columnist in the mid 2000’s when I lived in the neighbouring country Angola. For those interested in reading Insight Namibia, I am proud to say that we have it available in our library here at the Nordic Africa Institute.

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