Zubeida Jaffer

African journalists have given the profession World Press Freedom Day. Thirty years ago on 3 May 1991, they crafted and adopted the Windhoek Declaration on Press Freedom that remains the basis of this important day.

The African journalists finalised their definition of press freedom on 3 May 1991.  The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) funded and supported the seminar. The United Nations agreed to adopt the Windhoek declaration in 1993 and to declare 3 May World Press Freedom Day.

The Declaration speaks of an independent press free from economic and political control, an end to monopolies of any kind and the proliferation of voices reflecting ‘the widest possible range of opinion within the community.”

Their work will come under the spotlight when UNESCO convenes the World Press Freedom Day conference in Namibia on 3 May 2021 under the theme “Information as a Public Good.” ( https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldpressfreedomday )

Who were the journalists and media professionals who gathered in Windhoek 30 years ago?

The Journalist with the assistance of researcher Melissa Chetty has crosschecked a list of those journalists who participated in the drafting of the historic document.

The final list of participants is published on these pages as well as the list of observers from across the world. Added to the participant list are South Africa’s Rafiq Rohan and Malawi’s Al Osman both not on previous lists. The Namibian’s Gwen Lister has forwarded a further four names but by the time we went to print, we were unable to confirm that they were present. They were Fred M’membe of Zambia, Catherine Gicheru of Kenya, Fernando Lima of Mozambique, and Mario Paiva of Angola.

Senior UNESCO expert on Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Dr Guy Berger confirmed that UNESCO was committed to paying tribute to the African journalists who crafted the original declaration. He said that UNESCO has kept occasional contact with a number of them over the years including those who have gone on to other professions.

“We are very pleased that the original co-chair Gwen Lister, is active as one of the co-champions of the Windhoek Declaration today. It is with sadness we heard some years ago that her co-chair of the original event, Pius Njawe, passed away in an automobile accident.”

He further explained that this year’s conference would allow those who follow the events to be able to celebrate the history behind the Declaration. 

“On this basis, those involved this year will be party to examining how the original Declaration resonates in today’s conditions. Together they can help shape what current and future generations of journalists and policy-makers, across the whole world, can do to build further upon the legacy of those who met in Windhoek in 1991.”

World press freedom rankings

It is perhaps apt that this world gathering convenes in Namibia since this country has for a number of years ranked highest of all African countries on the Freedom Index.

Last week, on 20 April 2021, the world’s biggest media freedom NGO, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its annual Freedom Index that ranks 180 countries according to the levels of freedom available to journalists.

The Index is not an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country. It is a snapshot of media freedom based on the evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country. Self-censorship and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information are also considered.

This year, like last year, six African countries were ranked higher than the United States of America. Following Namibia ranked 24 was Cabo Verde (27), Ghana (30), South Africa (32), Burkina Faso (37) and Botswana (38). The USA ranked 44. Four African countries also ranked higher than the UK (33).

The 2021 Index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field, said the report. The data shows that journalists are finding it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The data further shows that African journalists were hit hard by the coronavirus crisis in 2020, suffering three times as many attacks and arrests from 15 March to 15 May as during the same period the year before. Other violations in the past year on the continent include arbitrary censorship, especially on the Internet (by means of ad hoc Internet cuts in some countries), arrests of journalists on the grounds of combatting cybercrime, fake news or terrorism, and acts of violence against media personnel that usually go completely unpunished.

Elections and protests were often accompanied by abuses against journalists, said the report. The financial weakness of many media outlets made them susceptible to political and financial influence undermining their independence, it said.

Against this backdrop of challenges, the profession will have to seriously assess how far it still has to go to uphold the tenor and tone of the Windhoek Declaration so carefully crafted by these men and women who met 30 years ago.  They deserve to be recognised and have their stories fully told in time to come.

 *The media fraternity is invited to study the list and contact The Journalist (info@thejournalist.org.za) should anyone have been excluded. Research has shown that a number of those on the list have passed on. This does not mean that an effort must not be made to compile a record of everyone who attended for future generations. If you attended the UNESCO conference: Seminar on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press at the Safari Hotel in Windhoek in 1991, or know of someone who attended that hasn’t been mentioned in the list, please contact us.

 For the full conference programme please visit the UNESCO website: https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/worldpressfreedomday/2021/programme

In collaboration with Mail and Guardian

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