Fall 2004

Managing Media in Times of Crisis

Edited excerpts from a speech by Gwen Lister

Gwen Lister, editor of The Namibian, an independent daily newspaper in Namibia, spoke to delegates at the UNESCO conference on “Freedom of Expression and Conflict Management in Crisis Situations and Countries in Transition,” held in May 2004 in Belgrade, Serbia. She spoke about her experiences and lessons learned in guiding her newspaper through challenging times. Edited excerpts from her speech follow.

“In times of conflict, the media’s responsibility for independent and pluralistic reporting is more important than ever. It can help to prevent the worst atrocities. In the aftermath of conflict, a free and independent press offers a way out of mistrust and fear into an environment where true dialogue is possible because people can think for themselves and base their opinions on facts.” —United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, August 2000, in the forward to the commemorative magazine marking the 15th anniversary of The Namibian.

Few would argue that it is the independent media that is most often targeted in situations of conflict the world over. Neither would many disagree that “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,” as stated on May 3, 1991 in the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Press.

Ironically, much of the independent press has come into being largely as a result of conflict, which by its very nature tends to give rise to the development of alternative media. The concept of independent media, as defined in the Windhoek Declaration, is freedom from governmental, political or economic control. Sadly though, survival of independent media is another question altogether, and the landscape of formerly nondemocratic societies the world over is littered with the skeletons of once-brave media initiatives that were unable to withstand the might of state power during violent conflict or which failed to win the battle for sustainability once peaceful transition had begun.

The Namibian is one of the fortunate few to have successfully made the transition from being a donor-dependent newspaper started at the height of South African apartheid repression in 1985 to eventual self-sustainability after Namibian independence had been achieved in 1990. Ours is not a new story, but it remains relevant today and while many valiant media initiatives in conflict zones throughout the world continue the fight for survival. And it is useful, perhaps, to draw some lessons from those of us who were fortunate enough to have not only survived the political struggle, but who managed to achieve self-reliance in the process.

Digging The Namibian’s Roots

When The Namibian started in 1985, few people believed we would make it. Namibia, then South West Africa, was in the grip of apartheid occupation, the former white South African government intent on controlling the hearts and minds of Namibians, most of whom supported the armed struggle waged by the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) for self-determination and independence for what was then-Africa’s last colony. The result was a clampdown on SWAPO, and anyone perceived to be supporting—or sympathetic to—the liberation movement, as the then South African government wielded its military might, made use of a host of repressive measures, including draconian legislation, and waged a propaganda war on any adversaries.

At the time, most of the media were, if not under the direct control of the colonial power, then certainly passive in the face of South African domination. A virtual state of military rule was in place in the north of Namibia bordering on Angola, from whence the armed struggle was waged; a dusk-to-dawn curfew was in place; SWAPO supporters were subject to arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, and there were daily cases of torture.

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It was in this climate that The Namibian started up. The core group of those who founded it were united in the belief that a newspaper with an independent editorial policy, honest and realistic reporting, and a strong set of guiding principles would expose what was happening under the heel of apartheid and contribute to a creation of a free and vigorous media in Namibia. The paper was committed to working towards the implementation of a U.N. settlement plan for Namibia, incorporated in U.N. resolution 435, which provided for free and fair elections and independence from South African rule.

Like most other independent media in repressive circumstances, we had no illusions that it would be an easy task. In the founding editorial of the newspaper in 1985 we stated that “we have no doubt that there will be difficult times ahead, that it will not always be a smooth path which the newspaper has to tread, but we are optimistic that, in the long run, critics of the newspaper will see that we have the interests of Namibians at heart and that our goal is an independent, prosperous country that can take its rightful place among the nations of the world.” We accepted, too, that the success of the newspaper would depend on its acceptance by the population as a whole. Looking back today, we believe that this support base counted very much in our favor in the years that followed.

There were obstacles to our existence from the very beginning, and these were to rise to a crescendo by the end of the 1980’s. When the interim proxy government appointed by South Africa learned of our plan to start a newspaper, we faced our first and most immediate threat. They levied a deposit of more than R20,000 (at the time, about $5,000) under the terms of the Newspaper Imprint and Registration Act, claiming the newspaper and I, as its editor, constituted a threat to the security of the state. As we set out to expose the injustices of apartheid rule, there was some relief for us in the fact that there was, even in such repressive times, a measure of independence in the Namibian judiciary. When we took the matter to court on the grounds that the deposit was unconstitutional, the judge ruled in our favor.

In the following years, we survived harassment, intimidation, direct attacks on our offices and our staff, including even planned assassination attempts. We were denied passports and travel documents and detained without trial. Arbitrary arrests were day-to-day occurrences. At that time, donor funding ensured our financial survival since the business community was intimidated by the authorities or directly threatened about advertising in the newspaper.

Elections, and finally independence, came to Namibia in 1990 and, with it, a democratic Constitution with an enforceable Bill of Rights, which guaranteed press freedom. This was a watershed time for us, as it is for many other independent media in war-torn and conflict situations when the funding begins to dry up and the race for sustainability begins. Even then, the odds were still against our survival. We had fought for self-determination and independence for Namibia, along with guarantees of human rights, including press freedom and, having won the political battle, we now had to fight for economic self-sufficiency.

Although the war had ended and peace had come to our country, it was still true to say, as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a message on our 15th anniversary, that even “those who come to power, especially in young democracies, easily become hypersensitive to dissent. It is often more convenient,” he added, “to ride roughshod over opposition, to be impatient of questions, to seek to avoid scrutiny, to seek not to be accountable.” This circumstance is not unique to Namibia. Our subcontinent of southern Africa has many examples of liberators who quickly become impatient with a free and democratic media when they themselves ascended to power.

In the period shortly after independence, The Namibian went through very hard times before financial sustain-ability was finally achieved. There were several occasions when we teetered on the brink of collapse, and we were conscious of similar brave media initiatives in neighboring South Africa, in particular, which experienced sudden deaths, often sparked by the abrupt withdrawal of funding, including Vrye Weekblad, South and others.

Several things made the difference for us. We had a core of committed and dedicated staff members who were prepared to sacrifice, sometimes even their monthly salaries and other benefits, in order to survive the hard times. We had an independent editorial policy that remained true to its principles, a “lean and mean” approach to management, and a creative approach to problem solving. Add to this the fact that the newspaper continued to be run and managed by journalists.

Because The Namibian had, to a large extent, won the “hearts and minds” of the people as it endeavored to be a “voice for the voiceless” people of Namibia during the apartheid occupation, it continued to enjoy this support base even as the former liberators now ensconced in government grew irritated by our watchdog approach to journalism. I am convinced that the support of our readers undoubtedly helped to stave off government excesses against our newspaper.

Established as a nonprofit trust, as our advertising revenues have picked up and we have improved on working conditions and benefits for our staff, we also have reached out through social responsibility projects to give back to the community. We are able to do this because we do not have owners or shareholders who are trying to maximize profit for profit’s sake and for their own pockets. We need to be driven by the business motive, but only to ensure our survival, and after that we need to put back into the community that has supported us for so many years.

If we can achieve this in Namibia, which has a relatively high rate of illiteracy and a population of fewer than two million from which to draw readers and an even smaller base from which to draw revenue, it can surely be emulated by other media initiatives.

Countering Government Tactics to Suppress News

Challenges to our survival remain. Government is not well disposed towards The Namibian, and much of taxpayers’ money goes into government-controlled media such as radio and television and the government’s own newspaper, which are used to combat the independent, and at times critical, reporting by The Namibian. In December 2001, this animosity culminated in a Cabinet decision to have government agencies stop advertising in The Namibian because of what were termed our “antigovernment policies.” This was followed by a presidential directive, some months later, instructing that no copies of The Namibian should be purchased with government funds. These bans continue to be in effect, and it is a measure of our self-sufficiency—rooted in the support of the people—that we’ve not been vulnerable to this attempted economic sabotage by government.

Though we haven’t done so, we might decide to contest this ban in court. The ban itself affects about six percent of our advertising revenue and so has had a minimal effect on our operations. What we’ve most feared was a “knock-on” effect with state-owned enterprises and private businesses following suit. With few exceptions, such as the ruling party itself, these fears have not been realized.

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Denial of advertising is a relatively new weapon in the arsenals of various governments, both in Africa and elsewhere, in an attempt to silence critics in the independent press. After The Namibian ban, the Botswana government followed suit with a similar embargo on advertising on the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun newspapers, which was successfully challenged in court. Operations of these newspapers were seriously affected by the ban as government advertising accounted for about 60 percent of their total revenues. The Swazi government also used this tactic, and The Guardian newspaper in that country remains closed down.

The key question to consider is why some independent media manage to survive and others do not. It is perhaps important for relevant organizations and nongovernmental groups to undertake a study to learn what lessons to draw from these experiences. Often success seems to come to those publications with a relatively small-sized but dedicated staff who are willing to do what needs to be done to get the paper on the streets or voices on air, despite the worst kind of provocation. There are instances when the so-called mainstream or commercial media in many countries can learn lessons from our experiences.

Force of circumstance and scarcity of financial resources has led us to be multiskilled. My title as editor, for example, is almost incidental. Since 1985, as a nonqualified journalist who learned the trade by baptism of fire, I have moved on to managing the entire publication, workforce, financial well-being, and everything else that needs to be done. It is a daunting task, sometimes, but being modest in size also keeps us in touch with our roots in the community and relevant to the needs and aspirations of our readers, and these factors are undoubtedly linked to our success. This doesn’t mean we can afford complacency. Times change, and the struggle is no longer the same one. So we need to be innovative in bringing about change to give our readers more diversity and a fresher approach to content. One of our major projects is a weekly Youthpaper to reach out to youth in an educational and informative capacity in a country where large-scale unemployment and disillusionment about job prospects is a major problem for the next generation. We have also developed our online edition at www.namibian.com.na, which is a popular site both at home and abroad. Web sites can, and have been, useful to many independent media in times of pressure.

In our own region, the most recent example of closure is of The Daily News in Zimbabwe in 2003 despite its favorable court rulings against the government’s actions. There are still questions about what led to the decision to finally close The Daily News and who made the decision to do so. Was it done out of fear for the lives of the journalists or because commercial interests played a role and the newspaper’s shareholders decided to throw in the towel?RELATED ARTICLE
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 President Robert Mugabe waged a concerted campaign for many years to crack down on independent media, using various forms of harassment, censorship and restrictive legislation. The closure of Zimbabwe’s only independent daily, which was started in 1999, unquestionably leaves an information vacuum in that country.

Choice of medium is key to survival. There are circumstances in which print might not be the right choice, depending on a variety of factors prevailing in the country in question. Newspapers are tangible products, and in Zimbabwe and in many other places in the African subcontinent, they provide an easy target for the authorities to confiscate. Radio remains the most important medium in Africa. Most Zimbabweans are now forced to read pro-government publications, and only a few independent weeklies exist, but there are shortwave broadcasts from abroad. Most private broadcasters cannot obtain licenses in Zimbabwe today, so it can be said that radio is carrying the torch of media freedom following the demise of The Daily News.

Not every independent publication should feel entitled to survive. Neither should we encourage continual donor reliance, an issue many African publications confront. When professional standards are found wanting or there is a lack of commitment and adherence to strong editorial principles, when people embark on such projects as only commercial money-making ventures (and this happens in our part of the world where money is in short supply and donors are willing to support such projects in countries in transition from violence), these journalists become authors of their own demise.

As journalists, we are all too well aware that in many parts of the world ours has become a dangerous profession, especially in times of war and political conflict. Annual reports of global journalistic organizations bear testimony to the many who have died and/or suffered in the exercise of their craft. Even in democracies such as our own in Namibia the situation remains a fragile one, and this is probably true of many countries newly emerged or in RELATED ARTICLE
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transition from repressive circumstances. Media, especially independent media, inevitably become the target when things go bad. In southern Africa, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) portrays a slightly improved picture of the media landscape in its 2003 State of Media Freedom Report. But there remain the glaringly obvious exceptions, like Zimbabwe, which still tops the list as the most repressive country in our region.

The independent media in various countries, whether repressive or in states of transition, need to be as transparent as they want the governments they challenge to be. Professional ethics are vital, and independent media structures must be clear about their ownership and the role of shareholders. Too often interests of the latter dilute journalist principles, which is why ownership is such a vital issue to survival in the face of conflict. Finally, independent media, whether print or electronic, is often the backbone of emerging democracies. It is therefore important that encouragement be given by other independent media that have flourished and that can share expertise with those just starting out. In many parts of Africa there appears to be a concerted drive to set up alternative media. This is a positive sign, especially since this was virtually unheard of not too long ago when governments dominated the media in many countries.

Great strides forward have been made and will continue to be made in countries in transition, such as Angola and Mozambique, for example. Assistance in laying the groundwork for democracy is needed in countries in the midst of conflict situations. They need help and support while they work to establish good governance as a foundation from which to promote press freedom and free speech.

Gwen Lister, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, will be among three women to receive the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Awards for 2004 in October.


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