Attacks on the Press 2002: Namibia

In a surprise Cabinet shuffle in late August, President Sam Nujoma appointed himself information and broadcasting minister in an effort, he said, to “tackle problems” at the state-owned Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), the country’s largest news outlet.

The NBC, which has suffered from endemic corruption and mismanagement, made headlines all year with its deepening financial crisis. As politicians promised that “heads will roll” in a massive restructuring of the corporation, NBC staff wondered if their jobs depended on their political affiliation.

Many observers believe that the president’s takeover of the information portfolio was also designed to tighten his grip on the state media to influence the public’s opinion of his ruling South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO). Nujoma’s comments that the NBC was servicing the “enemy,” and that “as journalists we all have to defend Namibia,” matched his growing anti-colonialist rhetoric. Such statements also fueled fears that he would use his new position to exert direct influence over editorial content.

The president did not wait long to confirm these concerns. On September 30, Nujoma ordered the NBC to stop broadcasting foreign programs containing violence and sexual content–which, he said, “have a bad influence on the Namibian youth”–and instead to show programs that portray Namibia in a positive light. But Mocks Shivute, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, called reports of Nujoma’s interference in the NBC’s daily operations “hearsay” and said that the president was acting as a “responsible father” by advising the broadcaster.

SWAPO officials, meanwhile, continued to antagonize the independent press, with government advertising and purchasing bans on The Namibian, the country’s leading daily, remaining in place.

In early 2002, Prime Minister Hage Geingob accused The Namibian‘s editor-in-chief, Gwen Lister, of “unpatriotic reporting” for criticizing his positive portrayal of Namibia at a symposium in the United States. Lister’s writing, Geingob said, “smacks of deliberate efforts at derailing the important efforts we are making in showcasing our nation.” Following the appearance of a cartoon depicting Nujoma as Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s attack dog in the September 6 edition of The Namibian, the SWAPO Party Youth League called for a ban on all insults to the president and threatened to take action to defend Nujoma.

In May, members of the media adopted a code of ethics drafted by media practitioners from both the private and state sectors. In addition, journalists appointed a new media ombudsman and created a media-monitoring project, which will focus on issues of bias. A government spokesperson praised the effort at self-regulation, saying it would help “normalize the often strained relations that existed between the media, government, and the public at large.”

In February, the National Council Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security recommended several amendments to a draft defense bill, which many journalists have criticized for restricting free expression. Proposed changes include softening language that allows defense information to be disclosed if it is “in the public interest” and narrowing a restriction on publishing information that may endanger the safety of soldiers. A clause that makes it an offense to bring a military court into contempt, ridicule, or disrepute was changed only cosmetically, despite protests from press freedom advocates.

On October 30, CPJ released a special report titled “Undoing Press Freedom in Namibia,” which details Nujoma’s tense relationship with the Namibian media. In a November 4 press release, Shivute denied that Nujoma’s takeover of the Information and Broadcast Ministry had hurt the Namibian press and said that the move was made solely to expedite reorganization at the NBC. Shivute called the CPJ report an attempt to “create news” and cast “disrepute nationally and in the international arena” on President Nujoma and his ruling party.