An exclusive interview with Namibian journalist Toivo Ndjebela

NAIROBI, Kenya — The Editors’ Forum of Namibia recently nominated Mr. Toivo Ndjebela, Editor-In-Chief of the Namibian Sun [pictured], alongside that country’s media legend Gwen Lister as the World Press Freedom Day champions, with a closing event on 2nd May 2021 in Windhoek.

Elvis Mboya, Editor of the Smart Africa [SA] in Nairobi Kenya, recently engaged Mr. Ndjebela via virtual broadcast, on matters – the state of the free press in Namibia and Africa, it’s economy 31 years after independence, how freedom of information can accelerate economic development in the continent, and doing business in that country in the face of current Covid-19 pandemic:


Mr Mboya [left] in a virtual interview with Mr Ndjebela. Image: SmartCompany.Africa

SA: Let me start by congratulating you on your Press Freedom nomination to represent your country. Briefly explain to viewers what this campaign entails and its significance to media practitioners in Namibia and Africa.

The World Press Freedom Day was birthed here in Windhoek in 1991, through a seminar hosted by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO].

The event that was co-chaired by my co-champion Gwen Lister aims to agitate about press freedom, independence of the media and pluralism.

That was the birth of the movement that led to a series of events that [eventually saw] the UN General Assembly adopting the 3rd of May as the World Press Freedom Day.

The event that was co-chaired by my co-champion Gwen Lister aims to agitate about press freedom, independence of the media and pluralism.

That was the birth of the movement that led to a series of events that [eventually saw] the UN General Assembly adopting the 3rd of May as the World Press Freedom Day.

The idea is really for the day to be an annual reminder of the need to observe and respect freedom and independence of the press so that journalists may do their work unhindered within the confinement of the law and other legislations

Our role as co-champions is to lead efforts of awareness ahead of this year’s 30th anniversary at the event to be held in Windhoek.

So, Gwen Lister and I are speaking to people like yourself and we appreciate the platforms provided to us to agitate about this day and to make a positive noise about it, says Mr. Ndjebela.  

Indeed, the Windhoek Declaration that was birthed in 1991 [in Windhoek] is a living document that has endured and persevered through three decades [to date] and which led to what we celebrate today as the World Press Freedom Day. It is a proud Namibian and African story, that the day has its roots in the continent. So that, in a nutshell, is what it is.

The World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranked Namibia favourably at position 23 globally and number one in Africa, just above Ghana and South Africa. What can be done to ensure the country doesn’t lose its current grip and sustain the momentum?

I think what’s important is to accept these ratings with humility and not to become complacent and too proud that we are better than anyone.

The rankings can either be due to these two observations: One, either we are doing very well in that respect or that we are not doing very well but others are really doing worse than us. So, those are the two probabilities. And, of course, we can always argue which one of the two is the reality.

But, what we need to do is to recognize that press freedom is essential to the functioning of democracy, and as a nation that prides itself in doing well in democracy, you want press freedom to be part and parcel of that aspect.

So, we need to be doing exactly what we have been doing, in terms of allowing the press to do its work and also to observe what the loose ends which need to be tied so that we can even improve our global rankings because if you are 23rd in Africa but number one in Africa, you maybe want to start being in top ten or five.

We may want to ask ourselves, why we are not ranked well in the world. Why we are only 23rd in the world. So, once we find the answers to those [questions] we can then focus on how to tie those loose ends.

The Namibian government through Information Minister Hon Peya Mushelenga recently announced that the government will soon finalize the ‘Access to information bill’ to promote access to public and private information. How optimistic are you about its passage and actualization?

The passage is not a big thing and not the main concern for me. Actualization is my main concern. Once the law is gazetted and [becomes] a functioning legislative tool – [then] how do we ensure that it’s [actualized to its conclusion]?

Because we have several countries in Africa with similar legislation yet they don’t rank [favourably] anywhere in the continentally and globally. So, the passage is not much of anything. What will make the difference is how the legislation is implemented.

I can cite the example of Zimbabwe. The country has had ‘Access to information law’ for many years now, yet they probably have one of the worst press freedom environments where people like [besieged Zimbabwean journalist] Hopewell Chin’ono and others being thrown in jail time and again for doing their work.

So, passing the law is not enough and we are very curious as media practitioners in Namibia, to see whether the hype around this law will really live up to the expectations of the industry.

In Kenya and her East African neighbours such as Tanzania and Uganda, there has been a steady decline in Press Freedom. Same in Namibia’s neighbours like Angola and Zimbabwe. What positive lessons can the rest of the continent learn from Namibia?

For Namibia what has been [the milestone] is that there was a time when there was a lot of tension between the government and the press and there was a suggestion by some government leaders that some regulator should be created to rein in the work of the media especially where journalists were deemed to step on the toes of political leaders and as an industry we opposed it saying that there was no way we were going allow that.

So, we came to a consensus that the industry must be allowed to regulate itself and that led to the creation of the Media Ombudsman’s Office, where the aggrieved members of the public could take their grievances against the press and where processes such as reconciliation [amongst others] are addressed, after which parties could make consensus and only then that some parties could go to court to sue.

So, the self-regulatory of Namibian press has helped to create a positive environment and positive outlook of our press environment here.

the [Second milestone] was the recognition by the government to see the press as a partner in the development and as the fourth estate which should be viewed as an alliance in forging the development agenda ahead.

That has also helped to close the gaps of the divisions that have existed. So, if you get those two things right, I think the rest of the gaps will naturally fall into place on their own. But fundamentally, those two aspects have been very critical.


Namibian journalists at a past event. Image: New Era

As a continent, we have been complaining about how biased western media cover our stories. Yet, today, as a visitor to Kenya or any part of the continent, reading or watching our news, one could think that these countries are in constant internal war due to widespread negative coverage, yet several positive and development stories are happening around us daily. How can the continent’s media fraternity develop a culture of telling their own positive and development stories which can inspire growth and investments in our countries to complement efforts by the governments and business community?

[Chuckles] So, Elvis my friend…You know I hear this thing a lot, particularly from the political leaders – how African media is not positive, patriotic, and not sharing in their vision of the continent, etc. But, that’s a very artificial way to look at it. Because conventionally what the politicians define as negative, [for instance] if you report about things like corruption, disease, and hunger on the continent.

Apparently, [by doing so] you are painting Africa as a continent of hunger and disease. And indeed, Elvis I can tell you that Africa is a continent of hunger, disease and mismanagement and if we are to toe the line of politicians and allow them to define for us what is negative news, we will have a situation where a community in one of the counties in Kenya [for instance] is going hungry because there is drought and the government has not been delivering drought relief food and the issue is not reported because it’s ‘negative’.

I mean, in Namibia, right now we have Angolan economic refugees, if you may call them that way, which is basically people from a certain [area in] Angola who have been neglected by their government and who have endured years of consistent drought and have been crossing into Northern Namibia seeking nothing but food to eat. Imagine!

So from a conventional description of negativity in African politics, reporting on the plight of these people qualifies as negative reporting.

Imagine, if this community were to be told that, yes you are suffering, fled your country, hungry and need food, but we can’t report about it or shine light on your plight because it will be negative reporting in the conventional definition of that.

That will be like a crisis — essentially conspiring against these people with their government and those who are failing to do their work. And, the problem essentially in Angola is that the government has totally neglected certain parts of their country where there is no government office or official – nothing is happening, so they have resorted to seeking refuge in Namibia and the government here has provided some camps where they can be taken care of [and given food, shelter and security].

Therefore, if you report the suffering of people – that is positive. If you report about diseases that engulfs some parts of Africa or corruption – that’s positive. Whatever it is that’s perceived as a negative story, for me it’s positive.

The only thing I will define as negative is fake news, because it has no objectivity, no truthfulness, and no credibility. It’s a concoction of lies put together to drive a particular narrative or agenda. So, that’s negative reporting.

But, if there is a screaming headline of a president stealing or a prime minister underperforming but those facts are correct, that’s for me is positive news. And my take is that every [media] practitioner in Africa must actually align themselves to that.

Of course, there are some small things that some people define as positive. If a government opens a clinic in a village — that’s the conventional wisdom of politicians and it’s their conventional description of positive news. But, if you expose the wrongdoing of certain public officials then apparently it’s negative news even if their facts are correct. I don’t subscribe to that kind of school of thought.

This brings us to the issue of trust, whereby many news sources, more so, in the government and businesses community who don’t trust the media with sensitive information, in the sense that the processed news being disseminated to the public, they argue is usually a misinterpretation or distortion. As a member of the Editors’ Forum in Namibia, having a front seat in that country’s media industry, how best can you engage your colleagues to cultivate and instill in newsrooms that press freedom comes with its share of responsibility and accountability?

We cannot emphasize enough the importance of being discreet when handling news, especially sensitive news delivered on your desk by people – may be from a whistleblower. It’s elementary stuff that you must protect your source.

Remember, that each one of your source that leaks or hand you information has an agenda. You must first make a judgment to ask yourself – what’s their agenda, first and foremost. Is it a positive agenda? [For instance, it could be] some low ranking officials in a ministry who have observed their bosses having impunity and plundering resources and their only agenda is to stop the looting. Or is it an agenda because your source wanted to be in that particular position and feel that someone got advantage to get ahead of them to occupy that position, especially in a competitive space?

So, there are always agendas. [Therefore] our job is to analyze to know these agendas. And then we report because there is news and not because an outsider has told us to do so.

[More importantly] we have to be discreet, professional, ethical, and absolutely objective so that we make that unbiased judgment on how to approach whatever has been leaked to us.


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