By Nigel Nyamutumbu
It’s now been 30 years since a landmark conference organised by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in Windhoek, Namibia to deliberate on the future of the media, then largely dominated by the press.
The resolutions of that conference, framed as the Windhoek Declaration, outlined the democratic principles of what a free media entails and sets parameters and safeguards to ensure that press freedom is protected.
Based on the Windhoek Declaration, the global family of nations resolved to adopt these resolutions by setting the principles as the international standard of press freedom and set aside May 3 as a commemorative day to reflect on the state of media freedom in-country, regionally and globally.
The principles are the benchmarks in which press freedom is assessed and the commemorative day serves as an opportunity to introspect, celebrate gains and set priorities for the future.
Three decades on, the principles remain the same though in a different context.
The dynamics of the media sector have been significantly changed in terms of structure, technological advancements and funding models.
The structure of the media has significantly changed from being ‘top-heavy’ to being more of an open market and opportunities have widened for the entry of new players outside the conversional mainstream media.
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On this account, there has been a steady realisation of pluralism and multiple regional, national and community media emerging and contributing to the wider democratic discourse.
Even institutions that support media development have been going through the regeneration and taking on new forms and structures that respond to the contextual changes and realities.
There has been growth in the media development sector itself underpinned by this changing structure, something that has added value to democratic discourse and positively influenced media policy dialogues within the region.
The digital revolution is also at the center of this shifting context not least in so far as redefining news and news values, but in challenging the hegemony that the press described by the Windhoek Declaration held in that era.
New media, particularly social media has posed both threats and opportunities for the media.
On one hand, the internet has enabled convergence and enhanced interaction between sources, audiences and the media, which some news outlets have been able to translate into increased revenue.
Yet on the other hand, there has been enormous threats, with the most cynical predicting the death of the press as it were while the optimists foresee survival that is hinged on institutional legacy, audience loyalty and the semblance of professionalism, which remains the hallmark of traditional media.
Even then, it is a matter of fact that circulation figures are declining with each year and the indications are that this worrying trend will continue.
The decline in circulation figures feeds into the point around the shifting funding models for the media as it is linked to a similar decline in advertising revenue.
Reflecting back to the time when the Windhoek Declaration was conceived, the media was heavily reliant on advertising revenue, to the extent that the principles aimed to protect the integrity of editorial independence from those that would fund the operations of the media.
Fast forward to 2021, the debates have shifted from advertisers interfering with the media to how these huge internet companies from your Facebook, Google and Twitter can be transparent enough for citizens to be protected online.
Wherein the Windhoek Declaration wanted to protect the media from corporate giants, it is now more of the citizen that needs protection from the media.
This protection goes beyond citizens’ right to privacy, but extends to protection from hate language, sexual harassment and disinformation.
There is also the scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic that has negatively impacted on the operations of the media and has contributed to the shifting context around the structure, use of the internet and social media as a source of news and information and the obvious ramifications on the sustainability of the media.
All these contextual shifts shall require critical thought leadership on how the media can respond not only as a means of survival, but to also adapt to this environment and inculcate a culture of learning within media institutions, both the legacy organisations and the upstarts.
This is why it is of concern that governments within the southern Africa region continue to sustain a culture of violence against journalists in the midst of a changing environment that requires strategic interventions at policy level.
Most countries in the region are not meeting the standards set within the Windhoek Declaration and if anything there is a calculated onslaught on freedom of expression.
Repressive legislation are still obtaining in the countries’ statutes and in some cases these legal frameworks are not in line with the national constitutions.
The media, particularly critical media is viewed as a threat and not as a strategic development partner that could contribute to economic growth and generally development.
Resolutions of key regional bodies, including the Southern Africa Development Community are not aimed at strategically responding to the growing security threat posed on citizens’ right to privacy given the lack of transparency of the huge internet companies but rather internally focused on crushing dissenting voices.
The resolution of the last ordinary summit in August 2020 is one case in point in which the regional body showed how misplaced their priorities are in so far as internet governance is concerned.
This obtaining environment in the southern Africa region should call media stakeholders to action and to push back the efforts by governments to further clampdown on the media.
There is need to direct the efforts of the regional bloc towards strategic thinking that will grow the media sector and not further destroy it.
It is time for strengthened solidarity, collective voice and sustained regional networking aimed at restoring the principles of the Windhoek Declaration and sustaining media freedom for our current context and for posterity!
- Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner currently heading the decretariat of a network of media support organisations in Zimbabwe, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on email@example.com or +263 772 501 557. The article was first published in the Accent, a MAZ initiative.