Tuesday 11 May 2021
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Access denied – Namibia’s “free press”

As Namibia celebrates leading the pack in Africa on freedom of the press, local experts confirm that the environment under which journalists work continues to be littered by elements in high offices who bar access to public information by those that regard media freedom as a privilege.
A latest Institute for Public Policy Research report titled “Access Denied” disclosed that there remains a general (75%) level of unresponsiveness to information requests by government departments.
According to the report this “does not appear to be improving and remains worrying”. The report has in the meantime been trashed by government as malicious.
However, recent attempt to solicit information relating to the Supreme Court legal fight between The Patriot and the Namibia Central Intelligence Services hit a brick wall a few days ago when presidential press secretary, Dr. Alfredo Hengari simply declined to comment without grounds.
This has raised critical questions around the role of the presidential spokesperson as well as at what point he can refuse to provide information as requested by the media.
Long-time journalist and co-author of the “Access Denied” report, Frederico Links, lamented that for the press secretary to simply stand in the way of access to information at a time when his appointing authority called for more transparency and accountability in the State of the Nation Address (SONA) was worrisome.
“That’s something that needs to be made clear to his (President) own people. He commended the media for playing an important role and for his spokesperson to be defensive when critical issues are raised, it speaks volumes. There is no real commitment to this. So it’s something he said when having to make political statements in the SONA but when we actually test this, it is clear that it isn’t what is being claimed. And I think it needs to be put to people like Hengari.”
Political analyst Ndumba Kamwanyah contributed by stating that “While the presidency’s spokesperson is mandated with the role of communicating the views of the President, for as long as information is of public interest, he has no grounds to simply decline to comment.
Hengari has to be more proactive and robust to clarify messages unless instructed by the highest office not to comment,” said the analyst.
“The role of a presidential spokesperson is actually the opposite of what he is doing. He is out there to sell the President’s message to the public and if need be, to clarify where the President thinks he is being misquoted or there is a likelihood that the President is being misunderstood.”
All these situations where he cannot comment if he does not have a lot of information, then he should say ‘look I would like to comment but I do not have enough information to give you can I go back and get more information from the President’ because it is not about him. It is about the office of the President.
So he cannot just arbitrarily say I can’t comment, that is a little bit of an inactive way of looking at his job and his role to the President and government at large,” said Kamwanyah.
Apart from being the presidential mouth-piece, Hengari has the task of acting within the parameters of the law, opined Professor Nico Horn.
Horn said there has to be a reason for every instance the spokesperson cannot answer the media.
“For example if it is classified information. Then you know in terms of the Act, and then you know there is no way that I can get it and I just need to report that it’s classified.
If he decides what the President cannot comment on, then that becomes problematic,” said the professor.
South Africa based Crisis Communications and Reputation Management Specialist, Rams Mabote said, “the State does not communicate to do us a favour. They owe us communication. As citizens of this country, we are owed every information that happens in the state.”
In his Radio broadcast, presenter Eusebius Mckaiser argues that sometimes when there are scandals surroundings the people they are speaking for, spokespeople find themselves being thrown under the bus.
Veteran journalist Gwen Lister expressed that often-times spokespersons withhold information depending on how questions are structured for them by journalists.
That Namibia’s free press is characterised by reporters going through insults in the process of accessing information shows that The Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index does not capture the complete detail of the journalist’s daily experiences.
“Being top in Africa isn’t something we should pat ourselves on the head (sic), because most African countries press freedom is a serious concern so you do not need to do much to stand out,” said Links.

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