Information ministry executive director Audrin Mathe (AM) spoke to New Era’s Edward Mumbuu (EM) on a buffet of issues, including the government’s agenda, how tribalism has no room in an independent Namibia, the ministry’s objectives, state of the local media industry and the implementation of the Access to Information Act, including the formation of the information commissioner’s office. It was a no-holds-barred sit-down, and Mathe minced no words.
EM: When you first joined the ministry, among the things that you did first was regional visits. What did you pick up during those visits?
AM: I went to assess the kind of environment and equipment we have so that we are able to communicate much more effectively. I found that in some cases, we don’t have proper offices in about maybe five regions. So, the difficulty of that is that we are now not able to do the kind of thing that we want to do in those regions. I also got to know the kind of warm bodies we have in those regions and to ensure they get the equipment to be able to do their job.
EM: Maybe just for a layman sitting somewhere in their village, what is the strategic role your ministry plays; what do you do?
AM: The key function, the mandate of the ministry is to disseminate information, using information and communication technologies. Also, we have a regulatory function; we set policies for the rest of the country, including public enterprises, such as Telecom, MTC and NamPost. So, we have oversight of all regulated firms and regulators to communicate other than also overseeing the state media, such as the NBC.
EM: Since you joined the ministry, the issue of digital transformation has enjoyed your attention. Take us through that.
AM: Obviously, we’ve done a lot of work. The world is going into digitalisation. A lot of functions that cannot be performed by humans will have to be done by machines, using artificial intelligence. This is good for many reasons. One is that you cut down on people’s costs. So, that’s really where we’re going. Also, with the advent of 5G now, you know that last year, Cabinet approved the 5G strategic rollout plan.
What you’re looking at is to see whether we can use technology to improve our education and health services. Tele-teaching could be used in a village where there is no mathematics teacher but there is [internet] connectivity. You can use a good mathematics teacher to conduct lectures from a distance, using technology. We are working on a national digital transformation strategy. Hopefully, by September, we should have a concrete plan that government again can look at and improve.
EM: One of the positive developments last year is the passing into law of the Access to Information Bill. What does this mean for Namibia?
AM: This is part of government’s Harambee Prosperity Plan, where we’re saying governance is one of the pillars that will underpin our next steps. So, that will mean any person in the country will have the right to access information that is in the possession of any institution – private or government. Generally, it targets all institutions. There are some exceptions; private information, such as lawyer-client information, will not be accessible as well as confidential documents such as Cabinet records and security information. But generally, it empowers Namibians to be able to use that information in the exercise of their rights.
There is N$20 million to start setting up the Access to Information Commission. We are at a stage where regulations have been formulated and the process of consultation on those regulations will commence soon afterwards. Once the consultation process has been completed, then obviously the minister will gazette regulations. At that point, only can the process of recruitment of the information commissioner begins.
EM: Can you also just take us through your programme for the MICT?
AM: I have met with three state media CEOs so that we can appreciate the challenges that the corporations are faced with and confirm some of the things that we thought were a priority, including equipment. For New Era, part of the resolution was receiving the donation of equipment from TIKA. With NBC, the NBC’s overheads are quite high. But also, the nature of the corporation itself is high intensity to the extent that there is a lot of investment required. What they would need on average would be N$500 million, but we can only give them N$300 million plus in aid of the functions they do. Look at the Namibia Press Agency (Nampa) – most press agencies in the world have closed down, including the South African Press Agency, because they’ve not been profitable generally, and there’s no way it will be expected to be profitable in the current manner in which we operate. We then approached the finance ministry to be very understanding of the nature of our problems, and they did assist those corporations to receive a small injection with the idea that then your functions and mandate can speak to where general governance is driving the rest of the country in terms of development, but also communicating information out of government, but also from the constituencies to government.
EM: As government, do you see value for money when you give money to New Era, Nampa and NBC?
AM: There has been a debate in parliament, and there are some concerns about whether New Era is implementing its mandate, which is to report on developmental issues of national interest. In many cases, you see stories that will not be relevant to that mandate, where New Era, at the same time, is becoming critical of government. I think that is not being received very well. I have communicated that view to my colleagues here at New Era.
Government created an institution that is communicating information on developmental issues, but we have developed it now into a space where you are seen to be competing with other private papers for whatever reason. So, we will continue to insist that there is a reason why New Era was established, and those reasons are clearly in the Act. That’s true for NBC and Nampa too; they were created specifically for a purpose; not to become an extended arm of the opposition, critical of government. It’s not an NGO, it’s not an advocacy body. It’s there to report on government activities objectively. I don’t mean that you should be praising us, but of course, if we are doing a good job, then praise is due.
EM: When you have a government institution like the Namibia University of Science and Technology, where government pumps billions of public money, what’s currently happening at the institution speaks to a lack of good governance. Should New Era then turn a blind eye and rather stick to reporting on 600 boreholes that were constructed? Where do you strike the balance?
AM: You seem to put your own opinions in the story and even imply something has elements of tribalism. I’m from this space; I know that journalists can also be used – they can be given information. And there’s a reason why someone gives information; they want to get their side of the story out – and that story or version may not be the only truth. So, you see stories that are littered with a lot of opinions and untruths.
But I’ve reviewed that New Era or NBC takes it upon itself to become a critical opposition to government, contrary to the money which is in there. Unless you are assuming that the opposition is doing a terrible job, therefore we need to occupy that space. But then let’s be clear whether that’s where you want to play so people can treat you like that.
EM: What is the general state of the media in the country – private and public?
AM: When these [World Press Freedom] rankings were first included, we were at number four, but we have since moved to number one. And for the last two years, we’ve been number two. So, that explains the freeness of the press in the country and the government’s reluctance to interfere in what the media does, contrary to what you see in other countries, where journalists find themselves in and out of court because they’ve been sued by government, the police or their licences have been revoked – nothing of that sort has happened in Namibia.
We are ranked a lot higher than, for example, the United States and the United Kingdom when it comes to the freedom of the press. I think we should be proud of that. We’re in the top 20 globally. I think that’s an honour for us. Press freedom, therefore, shouldn’t be abused to the extent that you see a lot of unhappiness in our country. You see headlines, but then when you read the body, you don’t see what the headlines speak to. There’s a lot of sensationalism. We seem to be taking these things for granted to generate a sensation when there shouldn’t be a sensation at all. It’s a straightforward method – report the facts as they are. If you want to have an opinion, write your editorial so we know how you stand on issues than hide behind stories.
EM: When one looks at the regional offices, sometimes there appear to be some overlapping functions between the ministry and institutions like New Era. Can you just clarify that?
AM: There’s a lot of complementarity. When I had consultations with the three CEOs of the public media, we discussed how we were going to be cooperating. The ministry has representation in all 14 regions. None of the three corporations has that level of representation. So, what we were seeing was that we have information officers who can generate stories for you, NBC or Nampa. Also, what we’ve done is that where we are present and any of these institutions is present, then we say come and have your offices in our buildings so that you don’t have to pay electricity, water or rent. That arrangement is in Omaheke; NBC is broadcasting from Omaheke. If you get to Keetmanshoop, New Era is residing in NBC offices.
So, this is the level of collaboration that we are working with. You see stories sometimes in New Era and on NBC that are written by information officers. That’s the level of collaboration. If anything, there’s been a lot of us working together to ensure that first of all, we cut costs – but secondly, we create teams that speak to each other it.
EM: What are you doing as a ministry to arm the communication departments within ministries with the necessary tools and skills to ensure they communicate effectively?
AM: You know, the perceptions sometimes can be rooted in facts. Our PROs also say there seems to be a lot of incompetence among journalists that a simple, straightforward story, you completely get it wrong. That’s why you see corrections almost every day. When you point one finger at another person, the other person is pointing at you. The President [Hage Geingob] said we have to go out and communicate more, and directed ministers to be available and responsive. As a result, what you’ll see in the next coming weeks is that there will be daily briefings by ministers arranged in clusters, where they explain what the government is doing continuously. There will be daily media briefings going forward, and the ministers will be there themselves to answer questions and explain what their portfolios are doing. We recently brought together all PR officers, ministers, agencies, regional councils and local authorities in one room really to re-induct them in the business of communicating.
We have also made sure there is understanding from those owners to get the PR officers the required gadgets to be able to communicate much more effectively. I think that shows signs of improvement already. I didn’t receive a lot of complaints that this ministry is not responding to any queries. Most colleagues in the media call me when they get difficulties getting through to another ministry and we assist to ensure that we get the responses they require.