Where newspapers thrive, but SMS letters are threatened

At first glance it seemed a rather bizarre story. Namibia’s newspapers last week reported on an “Open Day” at the Windhoek crematorium.

The background, it emerges, is that Windhoek’s cemeteries are filling up. One graveyard still has space for burials, but not for long. One of Namibia’s many papers quotes a city official as warning: “At the rate at which people are dying, you will probably not be able to be buried there after the Soccer World Cup.”

Apparently, the city cremated 30 bodies last year—versus 2 100 buried.

There are economics at stake. According to another newspaper, the same official says that the outlay for a grave alone is 1578 95 Namibian dollars, while cremation “only costs 550 N$ with box”.

Also, according to the article, “at least five bodies a time are needed for the cremation oven to be operational as the diesel used to operate the oven is very expensive”.

While Namibia’s papers cover how the authorities promote cremation in the face of public culture, they’re also fighting off ‘politicians’ attempts to bury the enthusiasm of citizens expressing themselves via SMS.

It seems the country’s authorities live with the fact of journalists informing the populace; it’s when readers respond with hard-hitting SMSes that the political knives come out.

The ruling Swapo party is especially sensitive ahead of national elections next month. There has been strong SMS criticism of a recent speech by retired president Sam Nujoma who blasted Namibian whites for the country’s problems.

In response to the critics, the Justice Minister, Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, lashed out in a speech at a political rally earlier this month. She singled out the Namibian‘s Gwen Lister, saying that the paper’s founding editor should remember that she was white—and stop writing the critical SMSes that get published in that newspaper.

In a column responding to the minister’s attack, Lister said: “I have never submitted an SMS to our pages and if Ithana remains unconvinced, I am sure that through the ‘Spy Bill’, she can get the answers she seeks.”

One reader of the paper sent in an SMS quipping: “Shame on Gwen Lister for writing all the SMSes. I bet she even wrote this. Shame ...”

There is an irony in Lister coming under fire, because she started the Namibian 24-years-ago in support of Swapo’s historical struggle against South African occupation.

Other readers of the Namibian themselves had this to say on the row:

  • “O God be with our leaders. They don’t want to hear the truth ...”

  • “The SMS pages in the Namibian are a means of practising grassroots democracy by the people, for the people.”

  • “Minister Pendukeni Iivula please stop blaming the Namibian and others. The SMS page comes from the people.”

One message said the government should not dictate what the Namibian should publish, and another declared: “We won’t shut up”.

Among the SMSes published were some in favour of the Minister’s attack:

  • “Viva Comrade Pendukeni Ithana with your speech at Omungwelume. Those who don’t want to be criticised by the Swapo government must pack and go. We lost our blood for this country. Viva Ithana.”

  • “To anti-Swapo people, remember that freedom of speech is not for you only. It is for all Namibian people including the Swapo leaders. Please leave our Swapo leaders alone.”

In his published SMS, Dr Elijah Ngurare proposed that it could not be accurate that Swapo leaders would “exhibit racial hatred towards our Aunt Lister or for that matter all whites in Namibia or elsewhere”. After all, he argued, “reconciliation was introduced to Namibia by Swapo”.

His message elicited the following response: “Congratulations Dr Ngurare for using and contributing to national democratic debate in the Namibian‘s SMS page ...”

Although it is the biggest paper in the country, the Namibian faces stiff competition. Besides four privately-owned papers, there are three other rivals—one put out by government (New Era), one by Swapo (Namibia Today), and one by the governments of Namibia and Zimbabwe (Southern Times).

Here’s a flavour of New Era, which recently blasted former Swapo member Hidipo Hamutenya who has formed a new party. It branded him and his supporters as “haunted deserters” who were “stuck in the sand” and “left behind by the wave of history”. Hamutenya was “preaching falsehoods ... singing wrong verses”.

The same edition carried neither letters to the editor nor SMSes from the public. In contrast, according to Lister, “our SMS pages are an important voice for civil society, and if in the process their views are not always to the liking of leadership, then it is high time they get used to it.”

The Namibian‘s editor could have recommended that Nujoma and Ithana might want to pop into the crematorium’s Open Day.

In a country heading for its 20th democratic anniversary, the two leaders really should turn their intolerance of public expression into ashes.

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