Attacks on the Press 2000: Namibia

NAMIBIA, REGARDED AS A MODEL OF DEMOCRACY, peace, and stability in southern Africa over the past decade, celebrated its 10th anniversary of independence last year, along with the inauguration of President Sam Nujoma to an unprecedented third term in office. The celebrations were marred, however, by the country’s involvement in several armed conflicts and by widespread allegations of abuses committed by Namibian authorities.

The Nujoma government clashed frequently with human rights organizations and the independent media over issues such as the ongoing conflict in Namibia’s northeast Caprivi region, the government’s decision to allow the Angolan government to deploy troops in Namibia to fight against UNITA rebels, and Namibia’s involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In response, the government strengthened its chokehold on the state-owned media and impugned the patriotism of its critics in the independent press. While state broadcast outlets had been known to criticize the government in previous years, for example, top executives at these companies started openly denouncing staff journalists who reported on corruption and other official failings. In late August, Prime Minister Hage Geingob urged journalists to toe the official line and refrain from “politicking.”

When journalists at state-owned media were not being overtly censored, they were forced to practice a high degree of self-censorship to avoid losing their jobs or being demoted. In September, Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) chairman Uazuva Kaumbi denounced local and international press freedom activists as “colonists” and “enslavers” in response to letters expressing concern over the demotion of NBC news director Nora Appolus, who allegedly lost her position because officials of the ruling South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) were unhappy about the NBC’s coverage of their party.

Opposition leaders were often denied access to state television. On April 12, the NBC received orders from Deputy Foreign Minister Gabriel Shihepo to black out a press conference held by the opposition Congress of Democrats. The state-owned biweekly New Era also came under fire in May for its independent editorial line. SWAPO legislators blasted the paper for departing from the role of government mouthpiece and for allegedly “misinforming, distorting and misleading the public.”

Namibia’s lively independent press does not face the same restrictions. The Namibian, the country’s largest and most popular independent daily, celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2000, an occasion noted by international journalists, press freedom organizations, and dignitaries such as U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Known for its critical reporting and courageous exposés, The Namibian has often suffered official harassment. Last year, the paper attracted vocal SWAPO criticism for its critical reporting, as well as threats of assault from the leader of the SWAPO Youth League.

Press coverage of homosexuality in Namibia also seemed to make the government very nervous. Many senior officials, including President Nujoma, have lashed out at the local gay and lesbian communities, calling their lifestyle unacceptable and claiming they have no constitutional rights. Many observers blamed incendiary comments by government officials for stirring popular anti-gay sentiments that culminated in a July 10 arson attack on Sister Namibia magazine, published by a local non-governmental organization that campaigns for gay rights and gender equality.

Immanuel Usiku, Namibian Broadcasting Corporation
Lapaka Ueyulu,
Namibian Broadcasting Corporation
Breschniff Katjaimo,
Namibian Broadcasting Corporation

A television crew from the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) was barred by Gabriel Shihepo, the deputy minister for foreign affairs, information, and broadcasting, from covering an impromptu press conference called by the opposition Congress of Democrats (CoD) at its offices in the parliament building.

The NBC crew, which included reporters Usiku and Ueyulu and cameraman Katjaimo, had intended to interview CoD legislators who walked out of the Tintenpalast (the parliament building) to protest the loss of CoD’s status as the official opposition.

Deputy Minister Shihepo reportedly told the NBC crew that, as employees of a state-owned media organization, they had no business covering the CoD press conference.

New Era

Members of Namibia’s national assembly called for action against the state-owned biweekly New Era because of its reporting and its editorial views. The paper was verbally attacked during a debate on the budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Information, and Broadcasting.

Ponhele ya France, a member of Parliament for the ruling South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), accused New Era of “misinforming, distorting and misleading the public.” Ya France called on Tuliameni Kalomoh, the acting minister for information and broadcasting, to bring New Era to order. Kalomoh concurred that the paper was not doing its job as a government publication.

Though the government eventually made some changes to the paper’s board of directors, sources in Namibia reported that New Era was still taking a fairly independent editorial stance at year’s end.

Windhoek Observer

President Sam Nujoma threatened to take legal action against the independent Windhoek Observer for reporting that he owned a diamond mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The article in question appeared on June 3 and claimed that an open-cast diamond mine at Maji Munene in the DRC had been handed over to Namibian army officials in August 1999. Two army officials closely linked to the government were said to be running the mine.

The Nujoma government has consistently denied that Namibia’s involvement in the DRC civil war is driven by economic interests such as diamonds.

Nujoma apparently made plans to sue the Observer before President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe revealed to South African newspapers that DRC president Laurent-Désiré Kabila had given diamond mines to both Namibia and Zimbabwe. Mugabe, however, emphasized that the mines were state property.

Norah Appolus, Namibian Broadcasting Corporation

Appolus was demoted from her post as controller for news and current affairs, a job she had held since October 1999, to the more junior position of manager for training for the parastatal Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). Her salary was not reduced.

Several other senior managers were also transferred to other posts. The NBC board claimed that these shifts were the result of an effort to cut costs and streamline its top-heavy management. Appolus, however, maintains that her demotion was politically motivated.

She said that when she confronted the chairman of the board, Henry Uazuva Kaumbi, to ask why she had been demoted, he told her that it was because of “the fish story” and the news department’s coverage of the elections in Zimbabwe.

“The fish story” was a June NBC news report which revealed that hundreds of cans of Namibian fish may have been contaminated due to defective packaging. The government claimed the report was a ploy to sabotage the fishing industry, one of Namibia’s most economically important industries. Kaumbi also told Appolus that the ruling South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) was unhappy about the tone of its coverage on NBC.

Appolus challenged her demotion in a petition to the Namibian Labor Court. On September 27, the Labor Court ordered the NBC to reinstate Appolus to the post of news controller pending the decision of a conciliation board that had been set up to resolve the dispute.

On November 3, Appolus reached a settlement with the NBC in which she agreed to move to the senior post of controller/training and development.