Media in Africa: 20 years after the Windhoek Declaration on press freedom

The Windhoek Declaration was agreed upon at a UN-sponsored seminar, ‘Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press’, held in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, in 1991. It was later endorsed by the UNESCO general conference.

The Declaration defines an independent press as that which is ‘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’.

media in africa_20 years since windhoekAnd a pluralistic press is stated to ‘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’.

As the Internet has grown in more recent years, it would be fair to assume that ‘newspapers, magazines, and periodicals’ now encapsulates online news-sites and the various types of blogs that offer people access to information.

The Declaration further states that ‘the world­wide trend towards democracy and freedom of information and expression is a fundamental contribution to the fulfilment of human aspirations’. 

Here is an excerpt from ‘Media in Africa: 20 years after the Windhoek Declaration on press freedom’:

In 1991, the Internet was almost unheard of in Africa. Very few people on the continent knew about cellphones, let alone had heard a range of ringtones interrupting a gathering. Back then, Nelson Mandela had not even been a year out of prison, and FW de Klerk was still the president of South Africa. No one at the time envisaged quite how badly Zimbabwe could turn out, let  alone how Tunisian resistance would have a domino effect even beyond the African continent. Rwanda in 1991 was just another African state. Twenty years ago, it was not a case of African election results being violently disputed as has happened in Kenya and Cote D’Ivoire in recent years – elections were few and far between. And in that distant past, outlets for ethical journalism were but a dream. Most Africans were not just blighted by underdevelopment, but also severely malnourished in terms of quality information.

It was the wider social context that set both possibilities and parameters in the pre-Windhoek era. Prior to 1991, media development in most African countries was almost everywhere subjected to the whims of self-interested elites who had captured power for personal gain, using combinations of force and nationalism to do so.

To assess the 1991 Windhoek Declaration in terms of African media history requires recognising that this seminal document came from the hearts of journalists. Generally around the world, but in Sub-Saharan Africa especially, journalism is bound up with idealism.

This is notwithstanding the many persuasions and pressures that can lead its practitioners to fall short of the ideal. The desire to strive for the best applies to even the most constrained journalists, who – when they set aside any self-rationalisations – would invariably prefer to do the right thing journalistically.

To this end, they hunger to be free of distorting controls by government officials, politician owners or unscrupulous bosses. This idealistic motivation includes even the most underpaid reporter on a private outlet who persistently supplements his or her erratic income with bribes. It is also something which supercedes most other senses of identity that an African journalist may have, at least in terms of aspirations. It is central to the appeal of being a true journalist who works as a professional to serve the noble cause of circulating information in the public interest. It is this idealism that underpins the power of the Windhoek Declaration.

The journalists who drew up the Declaration set up a beacon that illuminates the goal of conveying stories for honourable reasons, rather than for the narrow pursuit of power, wealth or religious orientation. It is this objective that sustains most African journalists in the face of daily challenges to compromise and is often upheld at great personal cost.

More than 100 journalists in the region have paid the ultimate price since 1990, and many others have endured other serious hardships. The idealism that powers their work is not a Western concern, even if it is shared in much of the West. Instead, it is a universal driver of why people choose to become journalists in the first place. It transcends various national or continental journalisms (in the plural) – i.e. various cultural forms and traditions of journalism.

Although the record of some African media is serving as an instrument of power, disinformation and even hatred, the news workers in these outlets tend to operate with either a sense of shame or a disavowal of their identity as journalists. In contrast, legitimate journalism – even when partisan – retains an ethical conscience that respects the values of truth-telling and public interest, and subscribes to the need for all key interests to be represented fairly in the public sphere.

What then have been the prospects for coming closer to the Windhoek Declaration’s ideal of untarnished journalism in the past 20 years? The answer to this involves pinpointing what the limits have been, and what kinds of journalism have developed in relation to them. Two vantage points can be taken on this matter. On the one hand, for observers like Francis Nyamnjoh writing in 2005, there has been no real improvement in most of the continent. In his view, the “mediascape in Africa in the age of intensified globalization speaks more of continuity than change and more of exclusion than inclusion”.

In a similar vein, analyst CW Ogbondah wrote in 2002: “There is as much continuity as there is change in the current political situation in Africa.”

From such perspectives, instead of positive change building incrementally over the years, there has been a continuity of journalism being corrupted by state controls, business imperatives and the weaknesses of practitioners themselves. In addition, there is still ongoing self-censorship as well as sensationalised presentations of reality, and there is also journalism that has inflamed violent conflict.

A different, less fatalistic and more optimistic view, points to unprecedented pluralism over the period, even if there is not a utopia of diversity and quality of journalism. It highlights the journalism heroes and heroines who have exposed social ills without fear
or favour, and it recognises media that promoted peaceful resolutions of conflict. In this camp, writers like Charles C Okigbo and Festus Eribo wrote in 2004: “On the whole, most people in Africa were better off in 2001 than a decade earlier – albeit modestly – and most of them enjoyed the benefits of a freer – albeit not necessarily free – press.”

In the analysis provided later in this report, the trends over the whole two decades since the Windhoek Declaration tend to confirm this assessment, even though the immediate past decade has not sustained the initial progress.

Edited by Guy Berger, published by MISA

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