On the whole, while there are some positives to point to, the trend discernible on the ATI And FoX landscape is rather worrying

As we head towards the end of 2016 it remains clear that access to information (ATI) and freedom of expression (FoX) retain their positions as political lightning rods – locally, regionally and internationally.

By all standards, 2016 has to go down as an eventful year on the ATI and FoX landscapes, with a number of occurrences, both disturbing and encouraging, to take stock of as we head into the future.

First, with the rise of ‘fake news’, mis-information and willful misleading of the public have become serious concerns. This should not be seen as a residual concern of what transpired before the US presidential elections, but rather something which has become more prominent on the Namibian media landscape.

As we close out this year, it now seems clear that to a large extent the Namibian government, grappling with keeping the state functioning against a backdrop of increasingly acute fiscal constraints, and while trying to overcome longstanding developmental and socio-economic challenges, is increasingly resorting to mis-information through state-owned media channels in order to maintain a good-news narrative and an unsteady positive image of the country and senior political leadership. This is an interesting approach for an administration that has made rather a lot of its intention to foster greater transparency, accountability and altogether openness on the governance landscape.

This approach reached its logical in inflection point when by November 2016 it became clear that all official state information or statements would primarily be channeled through the state-owned media, in what has been christened a ‘soft ban’ on official information dissemination through private, independent media channels.

What’s worrying about this is that while the state-owned media sector has on the whole never indulged in what can be considered critical or balanced reporting on government and the public sector in general – and rather too often veered to praise-singing and overly positive portrayal of politicians and government officials – this practice has certainly become more markedly evident over the course of this year. Increasingly, such channels, which enjoy the widest reach and distribution, due to investment of public resources, are seen as mere propaganda outlets for the state and ruling party. The rational outcome of this would of course be that information or ‘news’ disseminated through these channels would overwhelmingly be state and ruling party friendly. And this seems to be the case at this juncture.

Consequently, people’s ability to access credible information or balanced ‘news’ is being diminished, while the ‘soft ban’ could at the very least tarnish Namibia’s image as a media freedom friendly environment.

The Scares

Adding to the sense of threat currently clouding the ATI and FoX space are the persistent threats from politicians to introduce measures to regulate free speech on online social media platforms.

At the same time, voices critical of government and the ruling party are increasingly being cast as unpatriotic and opposed to Namibian state initiatives.

These sorts of threats and free expression suppression attempts come against the backdrop of the increasing use of deliberate Internet shutdowns and interruptions by various African governments as a way of censoring and silencing opponents and critical voices on national political landscapes and to black-out perceived negative occurrences which might cast a government or political leader in a negative light internationally. All this is done under the convenient cloak of supposedly maintaining public order and the integrity of the state and the safety of citizens and their property.

Namibian officials too have started using the same sort of language used by other governments to institute Internet shutdowns and interruptions or censorship measures, insidiously suggesting from prominent platforms and through state-owned media that voices critical of the state and ruling party are undermining peace and stability.

In light of this, it appears that the space for open and honest discussion is slowly shrinking, while the media landscape is becoming ever more polarised and the online sphere is being targeted for potential heavy-handed regulation.

At the same time, and amongst the positives, it should be remembered that Namibian authorities, with significant civil society involvement, have this year produced a draft ATI bill and a draft new information policy, both aimed at stimulating greater openness on the information-sharing landscape. Also, the Anti-corruption Strategy and Action Plan were launched, as well as work commenced on a draft whistle-blowers and witness protection law. All these are transparency inducing initiatives, which are welcome considering the ominous clouds. That said, the absence of substantially democratic, consultative processes around all these initiatives points to a significant hurdle remaining in state-civil society interactions.

On the whole, however, while there are positives to point to, the trend discernible on the ATI and FoX landscape is rather worrying.

2017 promises to be a politically fraught year, given the machinations bound to play out in the run-up to the ruling party congress in the latter half of the year, and some of these concerns could either have been dispelled or proven by this point next year. We live in hope that it may be the former.