No cause célèbre yet for media freedom in Namibia

Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro

On May 3 this year, which is World Press Freedom Day, Namibia, as it has become customarily mundane over the years since the declaration of the Day by the United Nations 30 years ago, joins the rest of the global media fraternity in observing the Day.

For Namibia, particularly Windhoek, the birthplace of the Windhoek Declaration on an Independent and Pluralistic Media in 1991, and the media, if not only a section of it, the Day may have particular meaning. Windhoek this year hosts the event. Hence the hype among some strata of society, notably the Government. Because Namibia once again, having forfeited the position for a year temporarily to Ghana, as media champion on the continent, has regained her crown. This a feat which the Government all too often has been boastfully proud about, as if this may be singularly and solely attributed to its own magnanimous exploits in either advancing, promoting or observing media freedom.

Same, a section of the media, particularly the so-called and presumed free and independent mainstream media, that oft has abrogated the gains in media freedom to itself, presumably having been the driving force and mastermind in the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration.

Certainly the effect of the Windhoek Declaration on media freedom in Namibia is and cannot be negligent. But equally the Windhoek Declaration is, and cannot be the Alpha and Omega of media freedom in Namibia. Nor after 30 years after the adoption of the Windhoek Declaration, has the Declaration been closer to being the Alpha and Omega of media freedom in Namibia.

Likewise Namibia has been internationally hailed, and rightly so, for its libertarian Constitution, notably when it comes to media freedom. Article 21 of the Namibian Constitution on Fundamental Freedoms provides for “freedom of speech and expression, which shall include freedom of the press and other media”.

But the Constitution and the Windhoek Declaration is often taken for granted as the Alpha and Omega of media freedom. The two documents are often taken on face value without positing them in their actual context. Because between the two documents there are a host of realistic and practical grey areas which represent a minefield in media freedom in Namibia. Given the socio-economic context in which the two documents play themselves out. It seems to be taken for granted that it is enough that media freedom is guaranteed, either by the Constitution, and the Windhoek Declaration. But the two documents cannot guarantee media freedom without all things being equal. Besides the two documents, there many all things unequal. Especially the socio-economic context in which media freedom takes place. Mindful in this regard of the various theories of the media. And Yours Truly Ideologically is inclined for now towards the Marxist Theory of the Media.

It postulates that media owners control media content, and that the media performs ideological functions. The primary role of the media is to keep a largely passive audience from criticising Capitalism and thus maintain the status quo. This is also known as the Traditional Marxist or Manipulative Approach to the media.

Consequent to the Marxist Theory of the media, Edward Sherman and Noam Chomsky would write about how vested interests control the U.S. media. “It is a primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilise public support for the special interests that dominate the Government, and the private sector,” they concluded after studying the U.S media for years. “Leaders of the media claim that their news judgements rest on unbiased, objective criteria. We contend on the other hand, that the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, decide what the general populace will be allowed to see, hear and think about,” they wrote further.

Is and can the media, and its environment in Namibia be any different than this picture painted by Sherman and Chomsky? Certainly not. Granted the political independence that Namibia achieved in 1990, there’s no illusion that Namibia is a capitalist society. Thus equally there’s no way that one can expect the media to be any different from the U.S. or any other capitalist democracy anywhere in the world, even on the African continent, with most of the societies capitalist in nature, with little semblance or pretense at Socialism.

Except perhaps Namibia with its avowed mixed economic system, whatever this means. Among the key tenets of the Windhoek Declaration is media diversity, which again depends on media ownership. Little if nothing at all has changed in this regard in media ownership on the Namibian landscape, a requisite for a pluralistic and diverse media. Admittedly there is today a more visible presence of African/Black media gatekeepers at the mainstream titles, who are for that matter merely holding the fortresses for the owners, themselves key players in the status quo with vested interests ala Sherman and Chomsky. But there is still little or virtually no media ownership by the indigenous, while many titles by indigenous owners have appeared, and same disappeared as quickly as they came. The Villagers, Patriot, to mention but two. Windhoek Observer is there but the goings are tough. But even where and when they have been, whose interests have they actually been representing, other than the status quo, which is Capitalism.

Is this the media freedom that Namibia has been talking about and may be proud celebrating on Media Freedom Day? Because in terms of access and diversity, surely there is little to write home about. There seems to have been fixation on solely defining and perceiving Media Freedom in terms of the presence and/or absence of the intimidation and harassment of reporters in Namibia, including their arrests and imprisonment and ultimately their killing.

Certainly Media Freedom is and must be more than these. Most importantly access to it and ownership of it by the indigenes. This is not the case currently in Namibia. Thus there’s little cause célèbre or no cause célèbre at all.

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