Thirty years after Windhoek, what has really changed?

By Daniel Kalinaki in the Eastern Africa Journalism Review

When 60 African journalists met in Windhoek in May 1991, they had many reasons to be optimistic about media freedom on the continent. The winds of change that had ended the Cold War and blown away the Berlin Wall had stirred a palpable sense of optimism across the globe.

The crumbling of the Soviet Union appeared to have settled the ideological debate that had divided the world for almost half a century. Western democratic capitalism had triumphed over Soviet communism. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such,” Francis Fukuyama, then a policy wonk in the US State Department, had noted in a recent book. Western liberal democracy, he continued, was the “endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution” and would be universalised as “the final form of human government”.

African countries had seen the emergence of nationalist movements which, after World War II, led to a wave of declarations of independence. In 1960 alone, 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained independence from their European colonial masters. These reforms were short-lived, however. Across Africa, the political elite that had led the struggle for independence almost invariably converted that legitimacy into single-party states, often under the guise of creating unity and nation-building. Jomo Kenyatta and the Kenya Africa National Union, Julius Nyerere and the Tanganyika African National Union, Kenneth Kaunda and the United National Independence Party, among others, represented this move.

This consolidation of political power required and resulted in the consolidation of media, or the continuation of the government-mouthpiece model under most colonial governments. Thus, the media in Africa between 1960 and 1990, largely mirrored the dominant one-party state.

By the time of the Windhoek meeting, however, the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union was being felt across Africa, including the wave of Western liberal democracy. Just over a year earlier, Namibia had declared independence and had written into law one of the most progressive constitutions on the continent, guaranteeing several rights, including freedom of expression.

Even South Africa, the next-door neighbour and the last bastion of white supremacist rule and repression, was giddy with the sense of possibility. After years of isolation, the country’s Nadine Gordimer had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, only a year after Nelson Mandela had been released from 27 years in prison.

One-party rule was giving way to pluralist political systems in many African countries. In multi-party elections in 1991 in Benin, Mathieu Kerekou lost to Nicephore Soglo, before trade unionist Frederick Chiluba defeated Kaunda in Zambia the same year.

The opening up of the political space was matched by the lifting of nationalist and socialist controls on economies to allow foreign investment, privatisation, and the dismantling of controls on the movement of capital. Many private media houses had continued to publish – they were almost invariably newspapers and pamphlets – across the continent, even during the Cold War, but the dominant broadcast platforms, especially radio, remained almost exclusively in the control of the State and the single political party in charge.

The end of the Cold War brought at least three notable changes – The first was an increase in the number of private newspaper publishers, including those founded by economic punters and by political actors seeking to influence public opinions.

The second was the liberalisation of the broadcasting space as private players were finally granted television and radio broadcast licences, breaking the grip that state broadcasters had enjoyed for decades.

The third was an attempt to defend media freedom and codify protections against journalists, many of whom had suffered the brunt of the one-party state and its coercive instruments when they did not toe the nationalist line.

The 60 African journalists who met in Windhoek between April 29 and May 3, 1991, under the aegis of Unesco, discussed the role of independent and pluralist media across the continent, and issued a declaration that would centre media freedom and plurality in international rights discourse.

“The declaration was adopted in 1991 in a climate of optimism,” Gwen Lister, co-founder of The Namibian newspaper and one of the journalists at Windhoek, recalls. “It was due, in most part, to Namibia’s newfound freedom, the slow unravelling of apartheid in South Africa as well as growing resistance to African dictatorships and development−type autocratic regimes.”

Thirty years later, we look back to Windhoek in this edition of the Eastern Africa Journalism Review, to reflect on how much has changed and how much more needs to be done to expand media freedom and plurality across the continent.

This excerpt has been republished from the Eastern Africa Journalism Review.

Read or download the journal below.

EAJR Issue 2 August 2021

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