Namibia tightens screws on media ahead of polls

The cancellation of a popular phone-in show on Namibia’s national broadcaster has raised fears that the ruling party is clamping down on media freedom ahead of national polls this year.

Last week Namibia’s government broadcaster NBC shut down the morning Chat Show, saying callers deluged it with hate speech and cultural insensitivity.

Most of the public complaints about the programme have been over criticism of the ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo), which is facing a tough challenge from a splinter group in elections expected in November, with tensions already sparking clashes at rallies.

Phil ya Nangoloh, director of the National Society for Human Rights, said that the government had earlier tried to rein in public debate on Chat Show and its sister programme Open Line.

“The Chat Show was temporarily restricted in November 2007 for a few days as callers were not allowed to discuss either Swapo or the newly established Rally for Democracy and Progress [RDP] party for several days,” Ya Nangoloh told AFP.

The show’s cancellation appears to be a reaction to the breakaway RDP, which was founded by long-time Cabinet minister Hidipo Hamutenya.

Former president and liberation icon Sam Nujoma sacked him in May 2004 for unknown reasons.

After failing in a bid to succeed Nujoma, he split away in 2007 and founded the RDP, which is gearing up for its first national electoral test this year.

With political debate heating up, the Swapo Party Elders Council last month called for cancelling the phone-in radio programmes as well as a daily newspaper feature that prints readers’ opinions from text messages.

“These demonstrate a clear sign of disrespect towards national leaders like founding president Sam Nujoma and his successor, President Hifikepunye Pohamba,” the group’s secretary Kanana Hishoono said last month.

“The two NBC programmes feature anti-Swapo hate speech,” added Hishoono.

Swapo enjoys a sharp advantage from its dominance of state-owned media, but especially the NBC, say political analysts Andre du Pisani and Bill Lindeke.

“NBC radio reaches by far the largest audience with more than 80% national coverage and NBC television also dominates, especially in urban areas,” they said in a study published last week.

But the new splinter group has created new tensions both in the media and on the streets.

RDP rallies in the capital Windhoek and north-central regions have seen party vehicles stoned and their members chased away from public spaces that Swapo supporters declared “no-go areas”.

Police now escort RDP motorcades and show a strong presence at their rallies.

One of Swapo’s prominent founding members and former Robben Island prisoner, 84-year-old Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, has pleaded for political tolerance in an open letter in the local press.

“Those who left Swapo have become our political opponents, but they remain our brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces and social friends,” Ya Toivo wrote in November.

But a few days later, about 200 vehicles loaded with Swapo supporters blocked the breakaway’s members from holding a rally in the small town of Outapi.

Cars were stoned and RDP flags burnt, with some police officers slightly injured in the fracas, causing the Inspector General of the Police Sebastian Ndeitunga to urge all political parties to refrain from violence.

“Despite repeated violence against our members they are strictly told not to react with violence and they adhere,” said RDP president Hamutenya.

“The political climate will heat up closer to elections but I hope things will not escalate,” he told AFP.—Sapa-AFP

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