Journalism in Africa has to be engaged in the pursuit of truth. I emphasize “pursuit,” since we neither attain it always, nor is it always within our grasp.
Truth is a very elusive concept. In the act of pure reportage, the journalist is often simply the carrier of a message. By probing deeper, investigative journalists have more of a chance of uncovering at least some of the truth, but still not necessarily all. The reader, listener or viewer must finally make a judgment about its veracity.
All of us surely know what truth is or what the word aspires to be. Yet it would be unwise to give this most weighty of journalistic principles a simplistic definition. For example, when considered in the African context, journalists contend with a variety of factors that fail to take into account whether a report is truthful. Many people, especially among those who serve in our governments, often don’t care if what we publish is true; when we write about opposition parties, we are viewed as “trying to promote the aims of other political parties,” and when we pursue our watchdog role, “truth” is characterized as disloyalty if it falls into the category of criticism. Recently, the government imposed on its ministries an advertising ban of my independent newspaper, The Namibian, on the grounds that it is anti-government (i.e., performing its watchdog role).
One might argue that here truth is very much a secondary thing. For many journalists on the African continent, particularly those who are “independents,” their struggle is also against forces of intolerance. In an attempt to silence and intimidate reporters, attacks are made on journalists, and our integrity is constantly questioned not only by government officials—including the president—but echoed by rabid elements of the political party.
For many Africans, democracy is a new concept. In nations that have recently emerged from oppressive regimes, some governments guarantee freedom of speech and of the press, in principle. In practice, the situation is much different. Until very recently, most television and radio stations and many newspapers in Africa were government-owned and -controlled. There was little critical, independent reporting. Journalists acted as the transmission belt to convey government’s thinking to its people. They were not expected, in turn, to convey the people’s thinking back to government.
This is why the emergence of an independent, critical press is so important. That we need to name this entity must seem odd to journalists in older democracies. What on earth is an “independent press?” But in 1991, in a historic conference in Windhoek, Namibia, African journalists adopted the Windhoek Declaration. It said, “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.”
The meaning of “independent” was hotly debated. In some ways, the “alternative” press (alternative to mainstream, primarily government-owned media) had transformed itself into the independent press. The Windhoek Declaration defined “independent” as meaning free “from government, political or economic control,” but journalists argued that media also must be editorially independent, regardless of ownership.
The adoption of the declaration was a significant step forward for journalism in Africa. It told the world that African journalists were tired of echoing words of political leadership and wanted to actively pursue the truth of what was happening. To a large extent it gave a moral boost to free up journalists to utilize their watchdog role over state and society.
In many African countries, governments paid lip service to the declaration but did little to facilitate the media’s transformation. Today, the African independent press remains very fragile and vulnerable. It operates amid varying degrees of hostility, notwithstanding the continent’s “winds of democratic change.” The winds that blew in constitutional gains (guaranteeing press freedom) represented a change of mind, not of heart.
The independent press continues to pursue the truth. It is a quest with consequences. Many in our governments perceive and accuse the independent press of being the Trojan Horse for the forces of imperialism and capitalism; often, we are portrayed as “the enemy.” In Namibia, despite our difficulties, we are better off than many other independent press in Africa which encounter large-scale violations of press freedom, even death for journalists and truthseekers in the vanguard of this struggle for the independent press.
Our democracies are evolving. They remain as vulnerable and fragile as the independent press itself. Perhaps it is too soon to expect the majority of people will support the pursuit for truth in journalism. But while we wait, as independent African journalists we must pursue the truth no matter how unpopular or unpalatable, and at whatever price we are forced to pay.
Gwen Lister, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, is editor of The Namibian, which she founded in 1985. She was recently named one of the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes by the International Press Institute.