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Gwen Lister, editor of The Namibian, at the center of a storm

User-generated comments, and text messages in particular, are causing umbrage in Namibian government circles. Their unhappiness highlights the historic shift of media away from unidirectional, univocal information.

This case underlines the politics entailed when the media becomes a platform for broader communication, which is exactly what’s happening with mobile phones in some
African countries.

Things came to a head in Namibia in early October at a political rally held as part of the build-up to the country’s November elections. A torrent of abuse and threats were issued at the event, and they emanated from the Namibian minister of justice, who also serves as the secretary-general of the ruling Swapo party.

In what amounted to a tirade, Ms. Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana launched a racist attack on the editor of The Namibian, Gwen Lister, and accused this celebrated journalist of personally writing the critical SMS messages that have been published in the paper.

Attacks Target Namibian, User-Generated Content

Significantly, as the Editors’ Forum of Namibia (EFN) noted, “it is not the first time politicians have called for an end to the publication of the cell phone-generated SMSes.”

EFN went on to defend “the rights of citizens to approach print or electronic news media to offer their opinions on current affairs, matters of state politics and other issues of public debate in the form of letters to the editor, SMS or by direct participation in interactive programs.”

An alternative newspaper founded 24 years ago to fight against South African occupation, The Namibian has been fiercely independent and has played a major role in exposing corruption and poor administration in the post-colonial period.

The publication today maintains the most visited website in Namibia, even though the country has very high-cost and low-penetration Internet access. This digital deficit notwithstanding, Namibians at large have seized upon SMS technology to express themselves, and a range of newspapers are jam-packed with their personal adverts and political opinions.

While some publications charge premium rates for SMS messages and make money out of the service, The Namibian provides the same access at cost.

MISA Takes on Information Access

Coincidentally, as the row raged over the minister’s remarks, a group of media activists gathered in the capital, Windhoek, to plan a campaign over the next 18 months. They were brought together by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), an influential lobby in the region that has achieved the following milestones:

  • This organization was a product of a conference in the city on 3 May 1991, which also gave birth to the “Windhoek Declaration.” In turn, that statement secured endorsement by both UNESCO and the United Nations General Assembly, and it is the reason why World Press Freedom Day is commemorated worldwide every anniversary.
  • In 2001, MISA convened a follow-up conference, this time concentrating on the need to end state monopolies of the airwaves in Africa. The “African Charter on Broadcasting” that emerged from the event helped to do exactly that.

Now, with “Windhoek +20” looming on 3 May 2011, the focus is being put on information access. The MISA argument is that freedoms without access to information are hollow and inimical to deepening Africa’s democratization and clean governance.

This aligns with a long-standing campaign around the world for the right to information. The traditional focus in this area has been on securing sunshine laws which will give members of the public the means to look into the hidden realms of official information. But changing technology requires changes to a paradigm that has historically put exclusive focus on rights to government-held information.

As The Namibian SMS case shows, the issue now has to go beyond this. With public expression enabled through cell phones, access to information needs to embrace society’s rights to have citizen-produced content seeing the light of day.

In part, this issue is a question of cost. Although a commercial entity, The Namibian treats SMSes as part of its public service. In contrast, in neighbouring Zambia, the state-owned broadcaster charges premium rates. Labeled “participation at a price” by academic Fackson Banda, this practice is diametrically opposite to real public service media, such as providing toll-free numbers.

What’s also critical is that governments keep their hands off of media entities that are publishing user-generated content. It is entirely inappropriate of the Namibian authorities to try and entrench a model of one-way, push media. This model intrinsically facilitates control.

As Lister wrote in March, long before the current controversy, “When people are given public platforms to voice their opinions, such as the call-in shows and the SMS pages in this newspaper, our political leadership soon takes exception when they’re exposed to criticism.”

In other words, for this particular government information is okay, but communication is taboo.

Registering Journalists and Bloggers in Botswana

What’s scary is that in next door Botswana, a draconian law was passed which requires the registration of all media, including bloggers. The system of course could allow for their de-registration and criminalization.

Despite these heavy-handed approaches, the genie of user-generated content is out of the bottle. A totalitarian regime would be required to stop all SMS messaging in order to prevent political criticism, and both Namibia and Botswana count themselves as democracies.

Nevertheless, the Namibian politicians have set out on a problematic path that needs to be countered. MISA and its activists must campaign for information, and also for communication.

Access to information subsumes — but is much more than — the right to information.

In turn, this also points toward causes such as defining the remit of public service in new media in a way that does not exclude poorer people who can’t afford premium SMS rates. It also emphasizes the importance of advocating for progressive policies which ensure that Internet access is available and affordable to those citizens who want to add their voices to the media mix.

In a column responding to the attacks from the minister of justice, Lister wrote that Namibians “see the SMS pages as an opportunity for dialogue with government and others on matters close to their own hearts.”

Her final assessment was that “Our SMS pages are an important voice for civil society, and if in the process their views are not always to the liking of leadership, then it is high time they get used to it.”

Another story I’ve written on The Namibian experience