Who will guard Namibia's guardians?
Namibian journalists have reason to be concerned. While Namibia was once again ranked as the top African country in this year’s Press Freedom Index, various parts of the government, especially the office of the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC), seem intent on establishing a statutory body to oversee the media.
Namibian journalists have reason to be concerned. While Namibia was once again ranked as the top African country in this year’s Press Freedom Index, various parts of the government, especially the office of the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC), seem intent on establishing a statutory body to oversee the media. This is despite the fact that the Namibian media – always fairly deeply divided along political and other lines – finally managed to get self-regulation off the ground in 2007 under the auspices of the Editors Forum of Namibia (EFN) and the Media Ombudsman.
During the recent EFN annual general meeting, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of International Press Freedom Day, it was clear that – after six years – there is an urgent need to ‘strengthen self-regulation efforts’ and for the EFN to take steps to consolidate itself and become more dynamic.
These views were echoed by the Ombudsman, Clement Daniels, who stressed the importance of self-regulation and the responsibility of editors to cooperate more in terms of the Code of Ethics for Namibian media. Indeed, his overview of the cases that had been brought to his attention over the past year highlighted one of the major challenges with the current system of media self-regulation. In relation to the eight complaints that he received between May 2012 and April 2013, the Ombudsman got a distinctly mixed response from the country’s editors. While some media houses complied fully with the Ombudsman’s enquiries, a few continue to resist signing up to the scheme and they ignored his requests for a response.
Even so, there is little doubt that there has been progress since the launch of self-regulation in 2007. But the threat of statutory oversight still hangs over the heads of the media. Indeed, the threat is looming larger than ever.
At a fairly vocal meeting called by the LRDC last week, Chairperson Sacky Shanghala said that they had “no intention of advising the government on how to muzzle the media, gag it, or do anything of the sort.” However, he used the occasion to discuss the need for media regulation during elections and stressed that “if you don't do something, by Jove, I must do something.”
Earlier, the EFN – in the light of the fact that the LRDC now appears to be looking into the possibility of regulating the media – emphasised the “importance of continued dialogue with the said Commission as well as all other role players in order to ensure that media freedoms in the country are not curtailed.”
But the threat is clearly not just limited to media work during elections. While the LRDC initiative emanates from a recent report on the Revision and Reform of the Namibian Electoral Act and out of professed concern for wider political party access to (particularly) state media during elections, it was proposed that there was a need to ‘facilitate the establishment of an independent media authority for regulating and monitoring the media not only during an election period, but on a continuous basis.’
Despite denials from the government, the Media Institute of Southern Africa's (MISA) Namibia representative, Natasha Tibinyane, clearly believes that the media’s fears are not unfounded and thinks that there are plans afoot to implement state regulation of all media. After all, Shanghala is known to have been an advocate of such control in the past.
At the meeting, Shanghala found himself facing a generally united front from both state and private media, which all pointed out that the existing self-regulatory structure – with its accompanying code of ethics and media ombudsman – could simply be extended to cover issues pertinent to elections. They roundly dismissed any mention of state regulation or control.
It was finally agreed that the media, through the EFN and in consultation with other advocacy groups such as MISA, would draft an addendum or expand the code of ethics to include specific election-related issues as well as make suggestions regarding political party access to the national broadcaster during polling periods.
Whether this will stave off attempts on the part of the state to “guard the guardians”, as Shanghala put it, remains to be seen. In the meantime, it has become critical for the often-divided media in Namibia to work together to prevent any erosion of press freedom in the country – by speaking loudly and with one voice in opposition to any plans by the government to impose regulation on the sector.