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Dispatch

AD342: Free vs. false: Namibia’s changing media landscape presents tough choices for citizens

Christiaan Keulder 14 Feb 2020 Namibia
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Key findings
  • Most adult Namibians own mobile phones (88%) and radios (67%). Four in 10 (40%) own television sets, and one in four (25%) own computers.
  • Among the three-fourths (76%) of adult Namibians who have heard of social media, half (51%) see its effects on society as positive, while one-fourth (24%) see them as negative.
  • Eight out of 10 Namibians regard the country’s news media as “completely free” (47%) or “somewhat free” (33%). But a majority (56%) think the government should have the right to prevent publications it disapproves of – more than twice as many as a decade ago.
  • Moreover, majorities say the government should be able to limit or prohibit the sharing of false news (64%), of information or opinions that it disapproves of (54%) or that criticize or insult the president (62%), and of hate speech (62%).
  • Yet more than half (55%) of citizens say that unrestricted access to the Internet and social media should be protected.

The World Press Freedom Index considers Namibia the African country with the freest media environment, ranking 23rd in the world (Reporters Without Borders, 2019). This index annually evaluates media pluralism and independence, quality of the legislative framework, and safety of journalists but does not review the quality of journalism.

While the media environment may be relatively free, senior Namibian politicians are often cynical about the media and journalists. At the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding for the development of an economic free trade zone, Trade Minister Tjekero Tweya called Namibian journalists “flies making noise” and detracting from efforts to develop the country (Ngatjiheue, 2019). Shortly afterward, the investigative unit at the newspaper The Namibian published the results of an international investigation into corruption in Namibia’s fishing sector, causing two ministers implicated in the transactions to resign (Immanuel & Iikela, 2019).

Relations between the country’s media and its political leaders appear tentative at best. As a result, Reporters Without Borders (2019) describes the position of Namibia’s media as “real freedom but frequent threats.”

The most recent Afrobarometer survey findings reflect a similar ambiguity in citizens’ views of the media. Namibians are frequent news consumers – most often via radio but increasingly also from the Internet and social media – and consider their media largely free. Yet fewer citizens than ever support media freedom from government interference.

Views are quite conflicted with regard to social media, which is both valued for making users more informed and effective participants in political processes and blamed for spreading fake news and intolerance.

Majorities endorse government restrictions on false news, hate speech, and even information or opinions that the government disapproves of. At the same time, more than half think unrestricted access to the Internet and social media should be protected.

Christiaan Keulder

Christiaan is the national investigator for Namibia.