Local media experts bemoaned the absence of a law on access to information after Reporters Without Borders ranked Namibia number one out of 54 countries in Africa.

The World Press Freedom Index released on Thursday last week also ranked Namibia 23rd out of 180 countries, up from 26th position in 2018.

Namibia is yet to adopt a law on access to information (ATI), despite several pleas from various sectors to that effect.

President Hage Geingob said during his state of the nation address last week that the access to information bill will be discussed in parliament this year.

“We recognise that access to information is a critical component of the electorate’s ability to hold elected leaders to account. To that end, the anticipated access to information bill will be tabled in parliament during 2019,” he stated.

The watch group equally noted some concerns with Namibia’s Constitution, which it said protects journalists and guarantees freedom of speech, but marginalises the media due to the country’s absent freedom of information law, which continues to obstruct journalists in their work.

“Those who dare to criticise the authorities are often the target of government threats or insults. They find refuge on the internet, where they are less subject to control.”

Namibia Editors Forum chairperson Joseph Ailonga told The Namibian yesterday that access to information still remains a concern.

He said it was crucial that the law be passed as soon as possible to direct officials on how to deal with information, instead of referring to redundant legislation.

“Namibia has a good [media] environment, but misses out on legislation to guarantee access to information. The case between the Namibia Central Intelligence Service and The Patriot is a practical example,” Ailonga added.

According to him, passing the law alone will not be enough, as proper implementation will change the flow of information to the public. This will make officials more proactive in the release of government records to the public, and will clear the blurred lines of what is in the interest of national security, and what is not.

The Namibia Media Trust (NMT)’s strategic coordinator, Zoe Titus, said president Geingob’s move is a welcome development for Namibia, the media and society as a whole.

She said the change in ranking is spurred on by the fact that Ghana, which overtook Namibia last year, has shown itself to be increasingly clamping down on media freedom and free expression.

She noted that the president is on record saying that a bill will go to parliament this year, but added, “we’ve heard such promises since 2016.”

“It’s an election year, and parliament will be dissolved come November. Is this matter going to be in our parliament(s) for the next 20 years, as was the case in Ghana?” Titus questioned.

NMT chairperson Gwen Lister told The Namibian yesterday that Namibia reclaiming the top spot for press freedom in Africa is good news, although it does not mean the media operates under a trouble-free environment in the country.

“Access to information and the promulgation of an ATI law remains a priority, and it’s been long in coming,” Lister said.

She said when the law is passed, it will enable citizens in general as well as the work of journalists in particular to promote more open and transparent governance, keeping secrecy to a minimum.

She added that Ghana’s fall in press rankings is likely because of serious setbacks for journalists in the past year.

“It must be remembered that other African countries, like Ethiopia, are ascending the index quite rapidly, so Namibia will have to keep on its toes to maintain the top spot,” the chairperson noted.

* This article was published in The Namibian newspaper on April 23, 2019

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