By Dr. Admire Mare
IN the next few days, Namibia together with the rest of the world, will celebrate the World Press Freedom Day.
The 3rd May is a date which was set aside by the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the family of nations to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
This year the main event, jointly organized by UNESCO and the Government of the Republic of Ghana, will take place in Accra, Ghana on 2 – 3 May. The global theme is ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’, and will cover issues of media and the transparency of the political process, the independence and media literacy of the judicial system, and the accountability of state institutions towards the public.
The theme of this year’s celebrations is very important in light of the threats posed by those in political and economic power. Recently, we realized that privacy breaches at Facebook which allowed Cambridge Analytica and possibly other third parties to have access to data of millions of users. We have also seen the resurgence of internet shutdowns in a number of African countries.
These examples demonstrate the need to ensure power is always kept in check though the countervailing force of the fourth estate. Press freedom can no longer be conceptualized as focusing on offline media spheres but also embrace the ever-growing strand of digital media platforms.
There in lies the need to ensure access to affordable, accessible and acceptable data. Data justice is equally important in light of the overreliance of this resource for various transactions in modern societies.
Although Namibia continues to be ranked as the top African country in terms of press freedom, there are real concerns around the existence of laws such as the Protection of Information Act (1982), the Defence Act (2002), National Security Act (1997) and the Public Service Act (1997).
The aforementioned laws militate against free expression, access to information and press freedom because they impose unnecessary red tape and bottlenecks on the part of journalists and media organizations.
In the last few weeks, very worrying incidences with deleterious impact on press freedom and freedom of expression have occupied significant acres of media attention.
First, was the news that the Namibia Central Intelligence Service (NCIS) had attempted to prevent The Patriot newspaper from publishing a story. This was after NCIS director general Philemon Malima filed an urgent application in the Windhoek High Court against The Patriot and its editor, Mathias Haufiku, in a bid to stop the weekly from publishing a report about former members of the spy service and the purchasing of properties.
In their court challenge, the NCIS claimed that publishing the information would contravene the Protection of Information Act of 1982 and jeopardise national security. However, media advocacy organizations like the Namibia Media Trust (NMT) and the Access to information Namibia (Action) Coalition have argued that using the controversial Protection of information Act as a smokescreen to silence the media was unacceptable in a democratic dispensation.
They also pointed out that the recent action flew in the face of words of President Geingob when he spoke during the 2017 World Press Freedom Day celebrations. At that event, the President said that “as long as I am given the mandate to lead this great country, freedom of the press is guaranteed”.
Furthermore, the President clearly articulated that the Namibian media was part of the national governance architecture, with the responsibility of ensuring that elected officials were held accountable and delivered on their promises.
In fact, President Geingob came up with a winning formula to ensure press freedom and good governance in Namibia. He said, “I often talk of the formula I have conceived: accountability + transparency = trust. For trust to be established, we need both accountability and transparency”.
Second, there was fake news that the government of Namibia had passed a new regulation to monitor all cellphones and communication platforms. The Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology (MICT) ended up issuing a press statement in which they cautioned Namibians against being creators and circulators of fake news.
These two events are important as we celebrate the World Press freedom Day because they allow us to take stock of our achievements and the challenges that lie ahead. It’s been a long road from the Windhoek Declaration up to this very day. So many transformations have taken place at the level of politics, economy, technology and media business models.
Some laws from the past remain in our statute books even after the dawn of democracy and self-determination. New digital start-ups have popped up occupying very important spaces in our media ecology. This poses serious challenges for policy and regulatory authorities. There is always need to update laws and policies in order to meet new technological demands and expectations.
Despite these media transformations, we must remain ceased with the promotion of free and pluralistic media [both traditional and digital]. Monopolistic tendencies especially in the digital age create problems in terms of access to the media and the free flow of information.
Global internet intermediaries like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo now occupy an important space in terms of our ability to receive and impart information hence our discussions around media freedom ought to be broader and a bit more nuanced.
These new spaces of communication are, however, not totally immune from repression or capture as we have already realized with the Facebook privacy scandal.
At the national level, Namibia has made significant strides in terms of ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’), which under Article 17 of the ICCPR, which reinforces Article 12 of the UDHR, provides that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation”.
However, the various legislation the country has adopted over the last few years have raised concerns about the increasing powers to conduct surveillance, the omission to establish and enforce prior judicial authorization, and the broader powers of intelligence agencies without oversight.
The 2009 Communications Act directly threatens the respect and protection of privacy rights, as it allows broad powers to the government to monitor telephone calls, e-mail, and internet usage without a warrant.
In view of these legislative hurdles, this year’s World Press Freedom Celebrations provide us with an ample opportunity reflect on the policy landscape we need to nurture in order to come up with laws that are necessary and proportionate.
Human rights including the right to privacy which is currently under siege from third parties and internet intermediaries ought to be protected in both traditional and digital media spaces.
Thus, as we celebrate the gains made in terms of press freedom, and the promise brought by the digital media, Namibia as a country has to put in place strategies for guarding the right to privacy in the digital age, free information flow and free expression.
We must never allow the Windhoek Declaration to mutate into a ‘useless’ document but always ensure that it’s continuously revised in light new technological developments. This ensures that internet and digital freedom are mainstreamed in our communication laws and policies.
Dr. Admire Mare is a senior lecturer in the department of communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. Here, he writes in his personal capacity.
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015