In less than two months, Namibia will host the 2021 World Press Freedom Day, which will mark exactly 30 years since the signing of the famous Windhoek Declaration on 3 May 1991, which paved the way for a free, independent and pluralistic press. This week, New Era journalist Kuzeeko Tjitemisa (KT) sat with local editor Toivo Ndjebela (TN), who, alongside seasoned journalist Gwen Lister, were named as champions for the global event.
KT: Mr Ndjebela, what is the role of the WPFD champion?
TN: Firstly, let me place on record that I am co-champion of the 2021 World Press Freedom Day with Gwen Lister. We were nominated by the Editors Forum of Namibia and affirmed by the minister of Information and Communication Technology, Dr Peya Mushelenga.
I cannot exhaust all the terms of reference for our work, except to say that we are here to beat the drum and make good noise about this year’s World Press Freedom Day, slated, as usual, for 3 May.
It has been 30 years since the adoption of the landmark Windhoek Declaration, which Gwen co-chaired in 1991 with the late Pius Njawe of Cameroon when UNESCO held a seminar in Namibia that birthed a global movement advocating for pluralistic, independent and free press. In a nutshell, therefore, our work is to raise greater awareness ahead of this event, by engaging the press both locally and internationally, as well as speaking to relevant stakeholders on how they can contribute to the successful hosting of the event.
These stakeholders include possible donors and sponsors who share aspirations for a free press globally – and have a cent to spare and help organisers.
KT: Namibia will in less than two months be hosting the World Press Freedom Day. How prepared is Namibia to host this international event?
TN: Namibia is ready; thanks to our ministry of ICT – as a government organ tasked to lead from the local front – and Unesco, who continue to play a very intimate role in the preparations, reminiscent to exactly how they did it 30 years ago when Namibia was a mere one year-old as a new nation still finding its feet in the fraternity of democracy.
I spoke to Minister Dr Mushelenga on Tuesday this week and he was oozing confidence that indeed everything is on track, despite the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, which will force organisers to have a hybrid of both physical and virtual attendance of the event.
The Namibian government is availing financial and other resources to the hosting of the event, which shows again the commitment to a free press. Dr Mushelenga, in our conversation, was emphatic in his conviction that, contrary to popular perceptions that the media and government are adversaries, they are actually partners who should work together for the betterment of society.
KT: How significant is this event?
TN: Very significant, Kuzeeko. First, it shows the tenacity and resilience of the Windhoek Declaration as a living document. This event will, among others, reflect on progress made in the past 30 years in the context of what the Declaration sought to achieve.
And because a lot has evolved since 1991, this year’s event provides an opportunity to see how this Declaration can continue to make a positive impact in an ever-changing world.
You must remember that the World Press Freedom Day, a global annual event, is an offspring of the Windhoek Declaration. The two are inseparably intertwined – and as Namibians, we have every reason to rejoice on the impact we have made on the world as far as press freedom is concerned.
KT: Namibia continues to be ranked among the countries with the freest press in Africa, according to the latest 2020 Press Freedom Index. As a veteran journalist, yourself, do you think this is a true reflection of what is happening on the ground?
TN: Look, I think we deserve our accolade. With all the imperfections of our country in regards to what the press endures from time-to-time, it is still worth noting that we really have a great media environment. I’ve worked for New Era for a collective eight years – five as managing editor – and I can attest to the freedoms I’ve enjoyed, doing my work in an environment usually strictly controlled with an iron fist elsewhere in the world.
Yes, sometimes being number one simply means your neighbours have it worse and not necessary that things are perfect in your own country. But a sober reflection of our environment will show that freedom of the press is fairly existent.
KT: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) evaluated media pluralism and independence. Do you think Namibia is making strides when it comes to media legislative framework and the safety of journalists in addition to the quality of journalism in the country?
TN: There’s forward movement regarding the much-anticipated Access to Information Law, which could be a game-changer, implemented to the letter and within the spirit for which the media pushed for it.
There has to be political will for it to work; otherwise, we will be just like other countries with a similar law, but where governments maintain a tight lid on crucial information. The jury is out as far as how this law will work. The quality of our work will drastically improve when there’s greater openness and better access to crucial information.
KT: What is you take on Namibian media houses and journalists in terms of labour working conditions such as wages and fair treatment at the work place?
TN: The conditions are not where they need to be. There’s a cocktail of reasons for that, chief of which that this is a very small industry swimming in a pool of insurmountable challenges.
Media houses, maybe 90% of them, are not breaking even financially. Because of this, they are often unable to guarantee the ideal working conditions. Covid-19 has worsened this inability, and we have seen some journalists losing jobs or enduring deep salary cuts. I’m a firm believer that one day, when all is said and done, the industry will be in a position to do better. The newly-formed union of media practitioners would hopefully have a hand in this.
KT: Are you satisfied with the role government is playing in creating a conducive environment for journalism and journalists to thrive?
TN: To a large extent, yes. There are loose ends that need tightening, such as the need for more openness from public officials. But all in all, I am a happy practitioner.
KT: Looking at the local media landscape and how it has evolved over the years, do you think there is enough unity and collaboration between the various media houses and relevant stakeholders? Or do you think there is still more work to be done to forge a unified media fraternity?
TN: Because it’s such small industry, almost every journalist and editor knows the other. For example, you and I have worked together for five years. It is unlikely that if I ask you for transport from a press conference, you’d leave me alone.
But even at a higher level of operation, there’s a lot of strategic collaboration between various media houses. Remember, we are competitors, so there’s only so much we can do in this regard. The Editors Forum of Namibia has helped unite us too, especially on policy matters.
KT: The famous Windhoek Declaration promoted, among others, an independent and pluralistic media. What is your take on the state of media in Namibia in the context of independent and pluralistic?
TN: Under the nature of their operations in general, you’d still appreciate how the state media operates in this country. I’ve been fortunate to work on both sides of the divide, at a very high level, so I know what I am talking about.
The colleagues in that space may not enjoy enough latitude in certain circumstances, but that’s the nature of the beast. State media will do even a greater job than they already are the day politicians, especially those from the governing party fully comprehend the meaning and ideal workings of the state itself.
KT: What are some of the pertinent challenges you think local media practitioners are faced with?
TN: Too many to enumerate. Journalism isn’t the best paying job, historically-speaking, so remunerations are often very inadequate. But then, you also have to pay for skills, which the industry is not very endowed with.
The order, the way I see it, is good training, which would manifest into good skills…and then good journalists can demand to be paid what they are truly worth.
Don’t get me wrong; there are really some good ones in this industry. We all know them. But we need a bigger pool of really good-skilled journalists. Universities must come to the party in this regard.
KT: With the advent of the digital revolution, media houses are also grappling with serious issues of misinformation and fake news. What role do you think mainstream media should play to stop fake news from spreading?
TN: The mainstream media cannot stop fake news. Not especially with the advent of technology, which leaves so much power in the hands of individual unscrupulous elements. The only control we have is over our own content that we put out. We need good vetting and control measures to ensure we do not inadvertently jump onto the fake news wagon. Credible news will always prevail – but it requires a lot of work from us, the practitioners.
KT: It is now almost 30 years since the Windhoek Declaration, yet Namibia is yet to pass a law on access to information. What makes access to information so important?
TN: Access to information, at least on paper, means being able to seek and receive information effectively. But like I said before, political will is what cuts it. Some of the countries with access to information laws are the most secretive in the world. So, having this law promulgated means absolutely nothing if there’s no adequate appetite from the authorities to practically subscribe to the ethos and spirit of the document. It’s only then that we can declare victory!