Southern africa regional perspectives background paper prepared by the Media Institute for Southern Africa (misa)

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The Windhoek Seminar:

“Ten years on: Assessment, Challenges and Prospects”

Windhoek, Namibia May 3-5, 2001


Background paper prepared by the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA)

  1. Executive Summary

The adoption of the Windhoek Declaration on ‘Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press’ has often been cited as the harbinger of media liberalisation in Southern Africa. The declaration speaks of the establishment of independent media free from governmental control. However, governments particularly in southern Africa have primarily focused on licensing commercial press, independent from government ownership and control, as the means to achieving pluralism. Similarly, governments have been reluctant to establish independent public media. Little of a practical nature was undertaken to promote the community, rural or indigenous language media that would form the pluralistic and diverse media landscape envisioned in the Windhoek Declaration.

The first stage of media liberalization in the region was marked by a gathering of African journalists and representatives of the world’s leading press freedom organizations in Windhoek, Namibia who on May 3, 1991, declared:

“1. Consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.

2. By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control, or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.

3. By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.”
The Windhoek declaration on “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press” is a historical document. It arguably contains the most precise and simply formulated definitions on media freedom and pluralism to be found among the plethora of international press freedom declarations.
The Declaration contains many more clauses, but the first three provide the principles for free, independent and pluralistic media in both the public and private sector. It was quickly recognized as groundbreaking stuff, and sincere supporters of press freedom, as well as those seeking to capitalize for political gain fell over each other with endorsements. The scramble included UNESCO, the member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and many more governments in Africa. The enthusiasm did not stop there. The declaration spawned many copies adapted to the needs of journalists in other regions of the world. In December 1993 the United Nations General Assembly, adopted resolution 48/432 that proclaimed May 3 as World Press Freedom Day.
In a commercial media landscape, pluralism and independence are not necessarily mutually inclusive. The economics of media enterprises often dictate ‘corporatization’ and/or the establishment of monopolistic practices. This is particularly true of the struggling economies of southern Africa characterized by their small advertising markets. These challenges to pluralism are more noticeable when applied to a liberalized broadcasting sector. Due to the fact that as primarily an entertainment medium, commercial broadcasting can proliferate without any necessity for the inclusion of news, current affairs and with the total absence of local information.
The region lacks policies for the promotion of comprehensive, in-depth and impartial news and information coverage – particularly at the local level. What is required is a media environment that ensures access to minorities and provides culturally relevant information in local languages. Governments are nervous about losing their influence over the news agenda and non-governmental organizations are slow in opening up debate on the effects of private ownership and control. Thus, the outcome of liberalization in southern Africa has been an opening up of markets to private enterprise, often in a complete policy vacuum, with no regard for the promotion of diversity of ownership and information pluralism. In some countries information pluralism has been further eroded by an accompanying removal of subsidies, particularly from public broadcasters, forcing them to become more or less commercially orientated.
Despite these initial encouraging developments, the emerging picture in most of the countries in the region is that conditions within which the media operates have become hostile and antagonistic. Political tensions in certain hotspots in the region have created circumstances where the ‘normal’ functioning of the press has become threatened. As a rule of thumb where the rule of law has been eroded, freedom of expressions violations have become flagrant.
Still, important developments have been witnessed in the area of legislative and judicial interventions whose effect has been the consolidation of the traditional legal and institutional freedom of expression protections.
In the area of advocacy for the protection of freedom of expression, initiatives aimed at dealing with systematic, and in some countries chronic, media freedom violations perpetrated in the name of state security and exercise of emergency powers, have had to be undertaken. A legacy of repressive laws from the colonial and apartheid era remain in the statute books of the majority of the countries in the region and despite the fact that such laws are starkly incompatible with the new regime of constitutional protections. However, not much progress has been made in repealing such legislation; instead there is a discernible trend by some governments in the region of resorting to such laws as weapons to censor, restrict or repress media operations with regularity.
Whilst in the majority of countries national constitutional safeguards seem properly established on paper, as experience has shown, the efficacy of these instruments in bringing pressure to bear on overcoming obstacles to freedom of expression is limited. Unless complementary mechanisms, be they institutional or legal, are in place and a conducive political climate where minimal impediments to freedom of expression and press freedom exist, these safeguards will be meaningless to media.
Ownership of public service media or state-control broadcasting media has remained static. All the broadcasting media that was owned and controlled by governments in southern Africa prior to the adoption of the Windhoek declaration has remained in the hands of governmental institutions. Only a handful of countries have to some extent given public media some degree of editorial independence. Notably, South Africa is leading the group here.
Although the internet has taken root in southern Africa, it still remain a very expensive medium. Only few media institutions are connected to the Internet and the majority of media institutions and media practitioners remain without connectivity. Access is mostly restricted to few urban centers and to few people within the high income brackets. However, the situation might change, as there is some projects that are connecting media institutions in the rural areas.
This paper is divided in six sections. The first section is the introduction. The second section deals with legal and political obstacles to free and independent media while the third section deals with media policies and regulatory frameworks. The forth section is about media ownership, diversity and pluralism. The firth section deals with new information and communication technologies and the sixth section is a conclusion.

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