The Press in a democracy not above critique and introspection

Dr. Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari

FOLLOWING the release of the 2020 World Press Freedom Index on 21 April 2020, Namibia spectacularly retained the number one position in Africa in press freedom. Moreover, it is impressively in the top tier globally. An incredible achievement, but one omitted by the press corps of journalists, which ought to cherish this feat. Unsurprisingly, the Namibian media does not take pride in this achievement of patriots. To the faultfinding journalists, it only matters for the front-page when Namibia falls in the World Press Freedom or Transparency Indexes. Worryingly, analysts are indifferent to these and don’t rush to the pages of newspapers to opine this achievement or comment when President Hage Geingob repeatedly guarantees media freedom for as long as he is Head of State. There ought to be a new path forward for the local press corps.

The media plays an indispensable role in buttressing democracy. It gives citizens a voice, it articulates their interests; and it brings to light the interests of transparent governance. In Namibia, the press carries out this role unhindered and without intimidation, which ought to be a source of pride for journalists. Journalists ought to be pleased with our standing, as the country with the freest press in Africa because President Geingob acts consistently within norms, believes unequivocally in the role of the media as a transmission belt of our nation’s core values, which are eloquently captured in our Republican motto, Unity, Liberty and Justice. Without question, our press corps, with all its strengths and known limitations, exploits and operates fully within the framework of our Constitution, and its foundational value of Liberty. Moreover, it also stretches, as it should, a certain conception and idea of what press freedom, and its twin, freedom of speech entails. In stretching the limits of a press freedom, as it should, it is bound to infringe, if not undermine some of the values and norms we have all committed to live up to, including unity, fairness and justice.

What should happen when the press and the media falls short in respect of these? This is a practical question, to which responses from learned professors, including Andre du Pisani should emerge. What should we do when the press is no longer respectful of the values of equality, fairness and justice? Is the one-man shop of the Press Ombudsperson sufficient or just a smokescreen to reinforce selfregulation? Should we keep quiet because we are in Government, and we are the guardians to be watched in that famous Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In accessible English – who is guarding the watchmen?

Just like the “watchmen”, the press as an instrument of modern communication has colossal amounts of power, and if left in its dangerous echo chamber and comfortable shadow of self-righteousness, without critique and public scrutiny, it is bound to abuse its power. Are these guys in the press, who are able to make and destroy, capable of fairness, accuracy and objectivity? Can we trust that they will act impartially? Of course not! Just like all forms of power, in the words of Lord Acton, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Through that absolute power, abuse is likely; bad things that undermine our collective progress are likely to be visited upon us. And they have been visited upon us. The ferocious campaign by the press against the person of President Geingob over the past five years reached a nadir during the electoral campaign of 2019. It is instructive for students and teachers of media ethics (if we have) and our nation’s political history. If we proceed and assess performance of the media against its own Code of Ethics, the comportment of the press is a case study of some of the bad things that should not happen in a democracy. There was without question a well-timed manhunt, a disinformation campaign, whose objective was to shape the minds of Namibian voters and determine the electoral outcome in this or that direction. Unfortunately, based on what we saw with our own eyes, the vote for President Geingob and the Ruling Party that he leads had to be significantly reduced.

Ordinarily, there is nothing odd for this or that media house to become partisan as a politically biased press. Democracy is about choice. But the rest of us should not be blind to the reality that such media, engaging in news as political and ideological activism would have deviated from its own Self-Regulatory Code of Ethics and Conduct for Namibian Media. This document, which calls for accountable journalism is consistently neglected, its articles are flouted with news presented inaccurately, if not out of context to advance a predetermined narrative and agenda.

The principle of a multiplicity of voices is hardly respected; the views of the subject of critical reportage hardly sought out in advance; retractions and corrections never getting the required prominence as per norms in counties where there press is free. In light of these, and in 2020, the Year of Introspection as President Geingob summoned us, the media as a professional class through the Editors Forum of Namibia has the responsibility to reflect about its place and practice of the craft in society, thinking beyond dangerous partisan, sensational, self-righteous and self-serving considerations. This exercise of introspection is urgent to avoid loss of credibility and faith in an important estate in the democratic compact.

The press is not a sacrosanct island outside political critique and societal evaluation. As journalism marches towards 30 years of the inspiring Windhoek Declaration on 3 May 2021, and Namibia retaining the top African country ranking in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, local journalism and media practitioners should urgently commence to labor critically about their journey and evolving role in a democratic state. At the heart of that journey lie the vital questions of fairness, accuracy, balance in reporting, and openness to critique.