Journalists and press freedom advocates from around the world attended a UNESCO conference on press freedom held in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, on May 3, World Press Freedom Day. The conference celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, which affirmed that a free and pluralistic press is essential for democratic government.
In a statement read to the assembled delegates in his absence, President Sam Nujoma accused the African press of irresponsibility. Demands for more press freedom, the president charged, were often driven by the desire to “unscrupulously engage in sensationalism, misinformation, falsifications, and lies in order to sell their products and build untouchable empires.” The public would be better served, Nujoma argued, if the press concentrated on conveying information from the government to the people.
Meanwhile, the government cautioned all foreign journalists attending the May 3 celebration against reporting on any events outside of the UNESCO conference itself, saying they would have to apply for work permits in order to do so. Under Namibian law, foreign journalists must apply for accreditation at least one month in advance of their arrival and state the purpose of their proposed visit.
Nujoma’s personal mistrust of journalists is reflected in official policy toward the independent press in Namibia. On March 23, the government ordered all its offices and agencies to stop buying advertising in The Namibian, the country’s largest daily. The ruling South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) made no attempt to hide the fact that the ban was imposed in reprisal for the paper’s critical coverage of the government.
Two months later, Nujoma ordered all government agencies to cancel their subscriptions to The Namibian. At the time, a SWAPO official told The Namibian that the advertising ban was inadequate, and that the authorities believed the added restriction would “teach the paper a lesson.”
On September 25, the government moved a new defense bill in the National Assembly that allowed the government to restrict a great deal of information on “national security” grounds. The bill was widely criticized by journalists and press freedom organizations. Among other restrictions, the bill would penalize disclosure of all “unauthorized information” and prohibit all photography of military premises and installations.
As justification for the proposed restrictions, Defense Minister Erkki Nghimtina said that the media were not sufficiently security conscious. Namibian journalists countered that “national security” was a vague term and that the bill gave the government far too much latitude to restrict important public information. The bill was still pending at press time.
Private interests also used the legal system to restrict information last year. In October, for example, the private Olthaver and List company obtained a court gag order against four news organizations, preventing them from quoting from a statement by the National Farm Workers Union alleging that the company was criminally liable for the death of one of its workers.
State media continued to show strong bias in favor of the ruling SWAPO. In October, when callers to the popular radio show “Free Voice” began criticizing government plans to build an airport near President Nujoma’s home village of Okahao, the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) banned the program from airing what it called “political campaigning.” Two weeks later, “Free Voice” began insisting that callers state their names, addresses and phone numbers before speaking on air.
Judge President Pio Teek filed contempt of court charges against the independent daily The Namibian, the Afrikaans-language daily Republikein 2000 (also known as Die Republikein), and the Namibian Society of Advocates.
The charges stemmed from comments the three organizations made regarding two cases over which Teek was presiding. The first case concerned the government’s planned deportation of Jose Domingos Sikunda, the former representative of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Namibia, for allegedly threatening state security.
The second case concerned contempt of court charges filed against Home Affairs Minister Jerry Ekandjo for disobeying an October 24, 2000, court ruling that ordered Sikunda’s immediate release from detention.
Both cases were proceeding slowly, and by early December, Judge Teek had not enforced the court order directing Sikunda’s release.
In a December 1, 2000, editorial, The Namibian called for speedy judgment in both cases and criticized Teek’s refusal to implement the previous court order, saying the judge’s inaction violated the constitution and eroded the rule of law. In a December 4 editorial, Republikein 2000 also criticized Teek’s conduct, while the Society of Advocates said that there was no possible justification for Teek’s behavior.
Teek filed the contempt of court charges with the Prosecutor General’s Office in January, 2001, while a hearing was being conducted into his role in the two cases.
Teek then recused himself from both cases, claiming that his credibility had been irreparably damaged by all the public criticism. Teek accused the three organizations of “the highest order of gross interference and intimidation in Namibian legal history,” according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
The judges who took over the case found Ekandjo guilty of contempt. Sikunda was released from prison shortly thereafter. Prosecutor General Heyman said that police continued to investigate the cases against the two newspapers and the Society of Advocates, but none had been formally indicted at press time.
Max Hamata, The Namibian
Hamata, a reporter for the national daily The Namibian, was detained and charged with “interfering with police duties” while trying to visit Geoffrey Mwilima, a former member of Parliament and a treason suspect, at the Roman Catholic Hospital in the capital, Windhoek.
In 2000, Mwilima was tortured and beaten by police. Hamata was investigating whether Mwilima was transferred from the Grootfontein Military Base to the hospital in Windhoek as a result of further torture.
When Hamata arrived at the hospital, two plainclothes detectives stopped him as he entered Mwilima’s room. Hamata demanded to see a superior officer to get permission to speak to the patient. He waited outside for the officer to return with his superior. When neither of them came back, Hamata entered the room, this time with a camera around his neck.
The second detective, who remained outside the door, thought Hamata had taken a picture without permission and demanded that Hamata hand over the film. The journalist refused to give the officer his digital camera. The detective then radioed for his commander and armed reinforcements, who arrived and escorted the journalist to the Police Charge Office.
Hamata was charged with “interfering with police duties.” The charges were withdrawn on October 15.