Press freedom advocates update their charter to meet new challenges
Thirty years ago, dozens of African journalists gathered at a conference in the new nation of Namibia to strategize how to better serve the public and minimize the risks of their work.
“In Africa today…in many countries, journalists, editors and publishers are victims of repression – they are murdered, arrested, detained and censored,” the journalists wrote in a document that denounced the controls government and economic and political pressures.
Their Windhoek Declaration called for support for “an independent, pluralistic and free press”.
“It has helped pave the way for a freer press on the continent – and certainly, I think, also for a wider acceptance of the phenomenon of a free and independent press,” said Gwen Lister, a Namibian journalist who has co – chaired this gathering. VOA.
The rally and its declaration inspired similar charters and gave rise to World Press Freedom Day, celebrated every May 3. The main celebration this year returned to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, for the 30th anniversary.
Lister served as the “champion” for the 2021 event, which rolled out an update to the document. The Windhoek+30 Declaration addresses both new and current challenges: the economic viability of independent media, competition from social media platforms that share but do not verify information, media literacy and the safety of journalists .
Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, with a bill of rights that protected freedom of the press.
“It was a really big deal, if you will, for Africa,” Lister said, suggesting that factored into the country’s selection for the initial conference. “Furthermore, South Africa was just emerging from the apartheid era. … Most governments on the continent controlled both print and radio.
Most of the journalists gathered worked in print, and at least some were building independent media, “even in the face of very hostile governments,” Lister said.
This week’s Windhoek conference, like the original, was organized by UNESCO and the Namibian government.
The country’s support “shows a commitment to the values of democracy and transparency”, Information Minister Peya Mushelenga said in an interview last month with Toivo Ndjebela, editor of the Namibian Sun daily and co-champion of the Lister conference.
Mushelenga said Namibia values freedom of expression and values journalism for its role in informing the public. “We don’t take the media as adversaries,” he told Ndjebela.
Namibia ranks first among African countries and 24th out of 180 countries worldwide surveyed for Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
But, as Lister pointed out, freedom of the press is “a struggle that is never entirely won.”
Snapshots of the African media landscape underscore his point.
— In Burkina Faso, Spanish journalists David Beriain and Roberto Fraile were killed on April 27 by gunmen while working on an anti-poaching documentary. (A third victim, Rory Young from Ireland, ran the non-profit Fundacion Chengeta Wildlife program.)
Beriain and Fraile were added to UNESCO’s tally of journalists killed on the job, bringing the total to 1,452 deaths recorded worldwide since 1993. Seventeen have been reported so far this year.
– In Kenya, Mariel Müller, a correspondent for German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW), was hit twice by tear gas canisters fired by police while covering a protest in Nairobi against COVID restrictions -19 on May 1. The news agency wrote to the Kenyan authorities and demanded an explanation.
— In Zimbabwe, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has been arrested three times since July, most recently in January for allegedly “communicating lies” about alleged police violence. The country’s highest court dismissed the charge on April 28, saying it lacked legal basis. Chin’ono had previously been charged with incitement to violence for supporting anti-government protests and obstruction of justice. He has strongly criticized the administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, alleging corruption and human rights abuses which the government denies.
— In Angola, Chela Press editor Francisco Rasgado faced defamation charges for a Facebook post last July that accused Rui Falcoa, then governor of Benguela province, of corruption. Falcoa, now the information secretary of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party, claimed around $1.5 million in damages. Rasgado could also have been sentenced to at least six months in prison if convicted. Instead, a lower court acquitted him – on World Press Freedom Day.
COVID-19 has added another layer of difficulty, with safety precautions limiting mobility and limiting field reports. The global economic downturn has fueled “media shutdowns, layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts,” the Columbia Journalism Review reported in March, noting that the impact varies by country but remains a “global media crisis “persistent.
Epifania Fernandes, a journalist with the O Democrata newspaper in Guinea-Bissau, told VOA that “sometimes the agency is unable to pay salaries for three or four months. However, it is understandable due to the difficulties he is going through.
It will take different approaches to ensure the vitality of journalism in the service of the public, said Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development.
A former South African journalist who also ran the school of journalism at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape province, Berger added that young people entering the field “really have to be actors trying to experiment with new models”.
“At the moment, the people who bear the costs of journalism are not the people who benefit from it,” Berger said. He suggested “public resources to support journalism in a way that does not corrupt journalism.”
The Windhoek+30 Declaration calls for fair and transparent distribution of all public media funds.
The document offers 16 other recommendations, beginning by asking governments to “commit to creating an enabling environment for freedom of expression and access to information. …” It sets out actions for UNESCO and other intergovernmental agencies, technology companies, journalists and others to support information as a public good.
Surveys by organizations such as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism show an erosion of public trust in the news media. That’s why media literacy training needs to be part of that effort, Lister said.
João Marcos in Angola and Lassana Cassamá in Guinea-Bissau, both for Portuguese VOA, and Columbus Mavunga in Zimbabwe contributed to this report.