There is a time to crow about good things. During the bad financial and economic news about the COVID-19 financial backlash, we want to cheer about this country’s number one rating in Africa for media freedom from Reporters without Borders (Rsf). As we move on from COVID into a new reality of how the world now works, we can look to the Rsf assessment and feel proud.
In their brief assessment note on their website (https://rsf.org/en/namibia) this country is given kudos mainly for the legal judgement against the national security agencies that wanted to silence a news report about their expenditures of state funds and the Fishrot expose. These are laudable achievements indeed.
Our view is that the current presidential administration holds more media events than in previous administrations. We believe that State House has events regularly and questions are able to be posed. there is no organized state harassment of journalists here as in other countries. This is to be applauded.
However, answers are not always responsive and when clarifications are pressed. Often, reporters are chided to ‘go away, don’t bother me with silly questions.’ Or, told to ‘respect elders’ or and sloughed off as miscreants for daring to question the rich and powerful.
Our reporters are often called unprofessional for asking a question that makes a decision-maker angry. We constantly struggle with the reality that if we ask a hard news question that angers a newsmaker, we will likely never get access to them again. And yet, if we softball questions to get more access, are we really reporting the news freely as is our constitutional role?
People in power still try hard to get the media to be their cheerleaders, dupes, sycophants and apologists. They like to feed out media releases and hand out selected information to get favourable stories. This particular tug-of-war is the nature of the beast and will never end.
Media is invited to all events and recognized in the protocol greetings. But, at times there is an atmosphere that the media is a necessary nuisance not a constitutional role-player in a democracy.
It is annoying, though sometimes amusing when those who are photographed or recorded or we have documents signed by them, and yet, they tell a reporter, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” The fall-back position of many officials being interviewed when they cannot control the reporter, is double-talk, denial or feigning ignorance, even when caught out. Nevertheless, we do have access, more or less to most decision-makers and that is good for Namibia.
While concerns remain that state-owned media cannot be independent and has more access than private media, the story does get out eventually to all media houses.
Admittedly, many times, we in the media working on rushed deadlines and do not get in touch with decision-makers in good time for considered responses (particularly if others must be consulted before public reactions are given out). Their inability to meet our schedules sometimes, clash with our expectations. This is an annoyance on both sides and is a work in progress to be sure.
President Hage Geingob often repeats his admonitions to ministers to be available to the media. He urges them to take calls, do interviews and answer questions during public Q&A sessions. His ministers do not always comply. In fact a few ministers we could name, are quite hostile to the media and regularly slam down the phone or give vague, snide, or prevaricated answers.
Most times, it takes repeated letters, calls and impromptu visits to get interview appointments nailed down. We are still awaiting interview request responses from letters sent in 2019 with follow-ups yet to be answered.
Our colleagues in the media will repeat these same war stories.
Many officials are lazy about dealing with the media. They request written questions in advance that they can cherry-pick on what to answer. They offer no follow-up or challenges for vague and unresponsive replies. They much prefer written questions and written answers to looking a reporter in the eye and dialoguing about the subject at hand.
The media have allowed them to do this for far too long. It is reasonable to request questions in advance so that statistics and accurate answers can be prepared. However, panned and generic written responses is NOT an interview. Follow-up queries raised by the answers are appropriate. This can be better done in person than via email responses.
Still, other ministers and officials answer on point and promptly. They do this not only because the president has demanded responsiveness from serving Ministers, but because they believe transparency is necessary for democracy. This is encouraging. It is what makes our higher free media ranking well-deserved.
Indeed with the Editor’s Board, the Media Ombudsman and crack editorial teams in each media house working hard to police accuracy and ethics, in Namibia, we all get it right, more than we get it wrong.
Bravo to Namibia for the high media rating. But, we must not rest on our laurels. Something gained so well as this first-in-Africa rating, can be lost quickly.