BY FREDERICO LINKS –      Glaring information gaps marked the closing out of the last year and decade, underscoring the escalating need for greater information freedom. By the end of 2019 it had been highlighted and hammered again why access to information was such an important civil right.

To recap:

  • The conduct of major national elections at the end of November 2019 brought into focus again just how poorly electoral authorities are managing elections related information and the dissemination of such vital democracy-sustaining information to diverse publics;
  • Alleged high-level corruption in a major economic sector – the fishing industry – has laid bare how a deliberately orchestrated lack of transparency and the absence of appropriate functional oversight in official decision-making has allowed acts of political corruption and state capture to be perpetrated for years without detection and/or because of a state governance culture that encourages complicit silence and looking the other way;
  • Mis-/disinformation and disturbingly divisive propaganda appear to have become features of the Namibian political and electoral landscapes, fuelling socio-political animosity and acrimony and fracturing and fissuring these landscapes further in the run-up to, and beyond, last November’s elections;
  • This gave rise to political threats to limiting online expression, by way of social media regulation, and to veiled threats and numerous verbal attacks on the media by senior politicians, contributing to a steadily growing media-unfriendly environment;
  • State actors still have not been able to shake the traditional, slow-footed reactiveness to information requests and to enabling public access to information in possession of government departments, despite all the official claims of increased responsiveness and transparency;
  • Coupled to this, in 2019, because of prevailing economic conditions and poor financial management over many years, the state broadcaster, the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), which for many Namibians is a primary source of information, scaled back its broadcast hours. The NBC also once again featured as key in state and ruling party misinformation efforts, while also occasionally being subjected to threats and intimidation by those very same actors;
  • And, of course, there’s the issue of the unfulfilled presidential pledge of a formalised access to information framework, a law, by the end of 2019, which stands again as a starkly unmet promise to the nation.

These are by no means the only access to information related concerns with which we enter the new year and new decade, but they encompass recurring challenges experienced with attempts to try and make Namibia a more open state and society.

So, as we commence the new decade, state authorities, civil society and the general public are reminded that the emergent decade affords the country an ongoing chance to meet its international obligations in terms of freedom of information in the context of the global Agenda 2030, as captured by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN.

Lest we’ve forgotten, SDG 16.10 calls on the Namibian state to ”ensure public access to information” by 2030, and while we still have ample time to meet this deadline, the country is dragging feet as others move along and ahead, even if such movement is very often flawed or incomplete. The point is that they’re at least moving, while Namibia remains stalled at the political rhetoric stage.  

To illustrate, an SDG progress report of Goal 16 targets from 2019 states: “Binding laws and policies giving individuals a right to access information held by public authorities have been adopted by 125 countries, with at least 31 countries adopting such laws since 2013. Among the 123 countries for which data on the legal framework is available, 40 do not include the right to appeal to an independent administrative body, which has been assessed as key for the proper implementation of this right.”

In light of this, in many respects Namibia is considered a leader on the African continent in various governance sectors, as its standing on various indices indicate, and in order to enhance, maintain and sustain that standing, it would just be right for the country to also lead in the realm of ATI. This is something we hope Namibian politicians recognise and value and we call upon them to make a best-in-practice ATI law a reality sooner rather than later, in line with president Hage Geingob’s now almost annual promise.

So, here’s to 2020 being the year that Namibia once again underscores its position as an African leader by enacting a continent-leading access to information law. Cheers!