Namibia’s information minister recently announced that a decade-long state advertising boycott of The Namibian, the country’s largest daily newspaper, would finally end. An action intended to punish the paper for its independence had failed.
It was back in December 2000 that former President Sam Nujoma told his cabinet to block all government advertising and purchases of the leading daily because he perceived the newspaper to be anti-governmental. Nujoma’s decree caused the paper to lose 6 percent of its advertising revenue and 650 single-copy sales to government officials, The Namibian‘s founding editor and former CPJ award winner Gwen Lister said.
In late August, after years of gradual pressure from several ministers, President Hifikepunye Pohamba’s government ended its boycott of the paper in a two-paragraph statement, Lister reported. The understated announcement seemed to illustrate the valuable lesson the government had learned: Citizens want a critical, independent media. After all, the boycott, intended to shutter the paper through financial pressure, only made it stronger. The Namibian currently sells an average of 40,000 copies per day–more than twice that of its main competitor, the state-run daily New Era, local reports said.
Suffocating under the propaganda of a colonial, apartheid-era South African government, Namibians had grown to cherish the few fledgling independent voices that managed to survive. “The mainly exile leadership that took over after independence [in 1990] did not realize that Namibians were independent enough not to want the same from their newly elected government,” Lister said. Political leaders with liberation credentials from places such as the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the governing political party in Namibia, must not underestimate the public’s desire for independent, critical information.
Many governments with liberator laurels should take the case of The Namibian into account. When rebels become government officials, they are often popular initially, but they cannot expect approval from the press and public forever. African leaders who came to power through insurrection–whether in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, or Zimbabwe–have often tried to suppress dissent and deny the public the right to a free, independent press. Independent voices, then, become more prized than ever.
This perhaps explains the success of the independent Zimbabwean newspaper, a South Africa-printed publication, which has managed to survive despite intentionally high importation duties, printing costs, and registration fees–attempts by Zimbabwe’s ruling party to quash the publication. The paper is still one of the leading papers in the country.
Journalists and press advocates hope the latest rebel-turned-liberator government, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, will not follow in the footsteps of SWAPO or the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. While independent papers like The Citizen and The Juba Post have faced harassment this year, the government has not boycotted or attempted to shut down either publication. The Juba Post receives some advertising revenue from the government, but it is far less than what other papers receive, the paper’s accountant, Sarah Paul, said.
The eight other publications that have emerged in recent years in South Sudan, however, have a short life span, local journalists said. Since the country’s referendum in January, in which southern Sudanese citizens unanimously voted for separation from North Sudan, a flurry of publications have emerged, freelance journalist Anthony Kamba said. “But most papers need support, both in finance and logistics, and end up being backed by certain government individuals with personal, political interests,” he said. “These papers are never popular–they have a short life span and usually last three to four months.”