Carol Guensburg, Ndimyake Mwakalyelye
Gwen Lister co-chaired a 1991 journalism seminar in Windhoek, Namibia, whose participants produced an influential text calling for a free, independent and pluralistic press. The Windhoek Declaration led to World Press Freedom Day.
Thirty years ago, dozens of African journalists gathered at a conference in the then-new nation of Namibia to strategize how to better serve the public and minimize risks of their jobs.
“In Africa today … in many countries journalists, editors and publishers are victims of repression – they are murdered, arrested, detained and censored …” the journalists wrote in a document that denounced government controls and economic and political pressures.
Their Windhoek Declaration called for support of “an independent, pluralistic and free press.”
“It did help to pave the way for a more free press on the continent — and certainly, I think, also wider acceptance of the phenomenon of free and independent press,” Gwen Lister, a Namibian journalist who co-chaired that gathering, told VOA.
The gathering and its declaration inspired similar charters and gave rise to World Press Freedom Day, marked every May 3. This year’s main celebration returned to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, for the 30th anniversary.
Lister served as a “champion” for the 2021 event, which rolled out an update of the document. The Windhoek+30 Declaration addresses both new and ongoing challenges: economic viability for independent media, competition from social media platforms that share but do not verify information, media literacy and journalists’ safety.
Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, with a bill of rights that protected press freedom.
“That was a really big deal, if you like, for Africa,” Lister said, suggesting it factored into the country’s selection for the initial conference. “Also, South Africa was just emerging from the apartheid era. … Most governments on the continent were controlling both the print media and the radio.”
Most of the assembled journalists worked in print and at least some were setting up independent media, “even in the face of very hostile governments,” Lister said.
This week’s Windhoek conference, like the original, was organized by UNESCO and Namibia’s government.
The country’s backing “shows a commitment to the values of democracy and transparency,” state Information Minister Peya Mushelenga said in an interview last month with Toivo Ndjebela, editor of the daily Namibian Sun newspaper and Lister’s conference co-champion.
Mushelenga said Namibia prizes free speech and values journalism for its role in informing the public. “We do not take the media as adversaries,” he told Ndjebela.
Namibia ranks best among African countries and 24th among the 180 nations worldwide surveyed for the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
But, as Lister pointed out, press freedom is “a struggle that’s never entirely won.”
Snapshots from Africa’s media landscape underscore her point.
• In Burkina Faso, two Spanish journalists — David Beriain and Roberto Fraile — were killed April 27 by armed men while working on an anti-poaching documentary. (A third victim, Rory Young of Ireland, directed the nonprofit Fundacion Chengeta Wildlife program.) Beriain and Fraile were added to UNESCO’s toll of journalists killed on the job, bringing the total to 1,452 deaths recorded worldwide since 1993. Seventeen have been reported so far this year.
• In Kenya, Mariel Müller, a correspondent for Germany’s public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) was hit twice by tear gas canisters fired by police while covering a Nairobi protest over COVID-19 restrictions on May 1. The news organization has written to Kenyan authorities and demanded an explanation.
• In Zimbabwe, investigative reporter Hopewell Chin’ono has been arrested three times since July, most recently in January for allegedly “communicating falsehoods” about purported police violence. The country’s top court dismissed that charge April 28, saying it lacked legal grounds. Chin’ono previously had been charged with inciting violence for backing anti-government protests and for obstructing justice. He has fiercely criticized President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, alleging corruption and human rights violations that the government denies.
• In Angola, Chela Press editor Francisco Rasgado faced criminal defamation charges for a Facebook post last July that accused Benguela province’s then-governor, Rui Falcoa, of graft. Falcoa, now secretary of information for the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola party, sought roughly $1.5 million in damages. Rasgado also could have been sentenced to at least six months in prison if convicted. Instead, a trial court acquitted him — on World Press Freedom Day.
COVID-19 has added another layer of difficulty, with safety precautions restricting mobility and limiting on-the-ground reporting. The global economic slowdown has fueled “media closures, layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts,” the journal Columbia Journalism Review reported in March, noting the impact varies by country but remains a lingering “worldwide media crisis.”
Epifania Fernandes, a journalist with O Democrata newspaper in Guinea-Bissau, told VOA that “sometimes the agency is unable to pay salaries for three or four months. However, it is understandable due to the difficulties it is going through.”
It will take different approaches to ensure the vitality of journalism that serves the public, said Guy Berger, UNESCO director for freedom of expression and media development.
A former South African journalist who also has led the journalism school at Rhodes University in Eastern Cape province, Berger added that young people entering the field “really have to be actors in trying to experiment with new models.
“At the moment, the people who carry the costs of doing journalism are not the ones who profit from it,” Berger said. He suggested “public resources to support journalism in a way that doesn’t corrupt journalism.”
The Windhoek+30 Declaration urges fair and transparent distribution of any public funds for media.
The document offers 16 other recommendations, starting with asking governments to “commit to creating a positive enabling environment for freedom of expression and access to information. …” It lays out steps for UNESCO and other intergovernmental agencies, technology companies, journalists and others to support information as a public good.
Surveys by organizations such as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism show an erosion of public trust in news media. That’s why media literacy training has to be part of that effort, Lister said.
Contributors to this report include João Marcos from Angola and Lassana Cassamá from Guinea-Bissau, both for VOA Portuguese, and Columbus Mavunga from Zimbabwe.