Media support imperative to keep voice of reason

AS journalists across Namibia scramble to cover the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are grappling with a bitter irony: as demand for their stories soars, the decline of the business model that funds them is speeding up catastrophically.

The devastating sweep of Covid-19 is the biggest story in a generation, and for most newspapers and news sites it has triggered record numbers of readers. Yet the virus is at the same time threatening laying off journalists and closing titles.

This week, the country’s largest daily newspaper The Namibian announced intentions to carry out retrenchments and renegotiate benefits with employees in a bid to contain costs and streamline its business.

Editor of the newspaper Tangeni Amupadhi said the desired costs to be cut should be at most 60 percent, and a minimum of 40 percent, according to financial analysts approached by the company.

He stressed that cutting costs is a must for the newspaper to survive, and one of the measures included cutting the newspaper’s subscription with the Namibia Press Agency (Nampa).

This challenge is not only peculiar with The Namibian, as the media industry has been ravaged by Covid-19 and without advertising support from stakeholders; this industry is tip-toeing at the edge of the abyss.

The continent’s major newspaper organisations, such as Media24 in South Africa and Nation Media in Kenya, have also not been spared. In January, Nation Media retrenched staff across editorial, operations, marketing, and digital departments to cut costs. It now looks like the media giant will once again be forced to retrench more staff.

Imperatively, the media industry plays a central role in the emergence of a politically, socially, and economically conscious citizenry. This role has elevated the industry as a major stakeholder in the political, socio-cultural, and economic development of the people. This essential role, however, has come under serious threat following the emergence of the Digital Age, changing social trends, and a global economy that is in distress.

While newspapers die a slow and painful death in their little corners, efforts should be made to save journalism. Democracy cannot function without journalism acting as a watchdog.

A Namibian report produced last year exploring challenges faced by the local media highlighted that the closure or downscaling of newspapers and the financial pressures on broadcast news reporting are having a damaging effect on media freedom. Quality journalism, which by definition includes investigative reporting, is becoming harder to sustain, let alone develop and expand. Inevitably, this weakens democracy as a whole. While authoritarian regimes are most commonly blamed for violating media rights, it could be argued that sustainability challenges will ultimately pose just as much of a threat to press freedom.

Indeed, the media should continue to pursue more sustainable indirect public funding options. This means that apart from lobbying for support from advertisers, the media needs to be supported by government in various ways that could be in the form of tax breaks, such as exemption from Value Added Tax.

For media to survive, perhaps the idea of pushing for reduced tariffs for internet, telecommunications, electricity, water, and paper is not far-fetched.