The report by Washington Based media watchdog, Freedom House, said although Namibia and South Africa saw noteworthy declines in press freedom in 2009, both countries, relative bright spots in the region, were downgraded in rating from Free to Partly Free.
The Freedom of the Press 2010 is an annual survey of media freedom.Freedom House is an independent watchdog organisation that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.
Freedom House released detailed reports on the two countries in Johannesburg on Friday as part of a joint event with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism about media trends in Southern Africa.
“While the events of 2009 in both South Africa and Namibia are worrying in their own right, of greater concern is their embodiment of larger, longer-term deteriorations of press freedom in these two Southern African democracies,” said Karin Karlekar, managing editor of Freedom of the Press. “As two influential players in the region, we are also concerned about what these declines mean for press freedom in the rest of Sub Saharan Africa.”
After exhibiting steady improvements since the end of apartheid, South Africa has been consistently ranked Free by the survey since 1995. Recent years, however, have seen a number of worrying trends, including more hostile government rhetoric toward the media, increasing political interference in the editorial independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the use of gag orders and other legal mechanisms to restrict reporting, and concentration of ownership in the print and broadcast sectors. In 2009, further encroachments on the independence of the SABC and the passage of the controversial Film and Publications Act resulted in a negative score change of two points, which moved the country’s status to Partly Free.
A four-point downgrade in Namibia’s score also resulted in a status change from Free to Partly Free and also stemmed largely from increased government intolerance of criticism. Pressure on the media by the ruling SWAPO party has driven growing restrictions on both state-run and private media, including sometimes vitriolic government rhetoric and interference with programming decisions at the Namibian Broadcast Corporation. In 2009, ruling party officials forced the cancellation and subsequent pacification of the NBC’s popular morning call-in programmes, and the broadcaster cancelled its policy of allocating free airtime to political parties ahead of the November 2009 elections. This was, in part, the cause of heavily biased coverage in the election. Namibia had been ranked Free by the survey since 2005.
“Unfortunately, these downgrades leave Southern Africa without any countries rated in the Free category for the first time since 1990,” continued Karlekar. Botswana, another promising performer, was downgraded to Partly Free in 2006 and showed continued declines in 2009.
According to the survey, the average regional score for Sub-Saharan Africa declined more than in any other region in the world in 2009. With only 5 out of 48 countries in the region now rated Free, only 10 percent of the population in the region had access to a fully free press.
Zimbabwe remained a cause for concern, despite the notable achievements such as allowing foreign media such as the BBC and CNN back into the country, the formation of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and the licensing of five newspapers.
Misa said out of the 165 alerts on media violations in the SADC region last year, 33 of these were from Zimbabwe.
Misa-Zimbabwe director Nhlanhla Ngwenya, said out of the five newspapers licensed, two of them appeared dubious due to their links with the former ruling Zanu (PF) party. These were the Daily Gazette owned by Gideon Gono, the Reserve Bank of Governor and an oustanding issue stalling the progress of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) and The Mail, which is owned by a group of youths who are funded by the Zimbabwe Youth Empowerment Fund but operating under the name Front Line venture. The other newspapers are the Daily News, owned by Associated Newspapers Zimbabwe, which had already been ordered by the Court to be licensed, News Day, owned by Trevor Ncube who already runs the Zimbabwe Independent, Standard and South Africa’s Mail and Guardian and the Worker, which was only changed its status from being a monthly paper to a weekly.
Ngwenya said already his organisation had issued about 10 alerts on media violations in the country from January to date, which was one incident higher than what was recorded last year during the same period.
He said Misa-Zimbabwe was concerned that newspapers had been licensed under the same repressive legal environment at a time when both Zanu (PF) and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were calling for an eletion next year. He said there was no guarantee that journalists would operate freely, adding that all the current repressive media laws carried jail terms.
He said the situation was worsened by the fact that there was a culture of impunity, which had seen up to today, no-one being brought to book on the bombings of the printing press for the Daily News and the Radio VOP offices in Harare. He said there was also an entrenched hatred of the alternative media.
He said while the MDC had good intentions, the party did not appear to have power. He said it would take a miracle or the adoption of a constitution that captures the aspirations of the people, to have a truly free press in the country.
Thapelo Ndlovu of Botswana also painted a gloomy picture of his country saying President Ian Khama had placed the Ministry of Information under the President’s office, which was alarming. This had seen the state media only covering the government positively. There was also a deliberate killing of the private media by ensuring that all government departments adveritsed through state media.
Raymond Louw of South Africa spoke about how the government was stripping media freedom in bits and pieces, saying his fear was that the South African media would wake up with no freedom if they did not act urgently. He cited the Information Bill, currently under discussion, which intended to put more issues classified as secret and the Protection from Harassment Bill which will prohibit journalists to wait outside the premises of a source for a chance interview or to call a source on the phone several times.