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Government bans newspapers from covering culling of seals

(MISA/IFEX) - On 27 July 2009, the Namibian government through the office of the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Frans Tsheehama, banned Namibian newspapers from accessing the Sea Scal colony where an annual commercial seal culling exercise is taking place.

The permanent secretary stated that, "under no circumstances would film activities take place during the harvesting of seals", adding "If the government decides for the coverage by the media, such a project will be awarded to state media institutions of which terms and conditions will be drafted and agreed upon in writing".

The background to the application by the Namibian newspapers follows the arrest of two foreign media workers on 16 July 2009. The two South African filmmakers, Bart Smithers, and British investigative journalist Jim Wickens, were arrested for trespassing and carrying out media work in a 'prohibited' area and without the requisite permission and accreditation from relevant authorities. Both pleaded guilty and were fined N$5,000 (approx. US$625) each on 17 July 2009.

In response to these developments, the Namibian newspapers applied to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources seeking permission to enter the seal harvesting area and report for the benefit of citizens on how this is done. The controversy over the harvesting of seals also follows complaints by animal rights groups that the harvesting of seals is being done in an insensitive manner. This story therefore has interest not only in Namibian but the global community especially within groups fighting for animal rights.

MISA's perusal of the Marine Resources Act of 2000 as well as the government notice on regulations relating to the exploitation of marine resources of 7 December 2001 show that nowhere are media workers required to either apply or be granted a license to carry out any form of media work within the marine areas. MISA therefore expresses its serious concern and condemnation of attempts by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to use non-existent statutes to ban legitimate media work as well as inhibit access to areas of interest by both the local and foreign media. It is not surprising that in his letter to the Namibian newspaper Permanent Secretary Frans Tsheehama could not quote any clause of the Act governing media coverage of Marine areas and instead relied on his own opinions and understanding of what the media should do and not do.

MISA also expresses serious concern on the understanding of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources of who constitutes the Namibian media. MISA does not agree that the government should rely and give preference to the state-owned media in the coverage of any event or issue of national interest. MISA reminds the government that all the media in Namibia operate within the laws of Namibia, pay taxes, and are run on professional lines with a view of informing the people of Namibia. We view the pronounced preference of the state media as an attempt to divide rather than unite the media in Namibia. To select the state media as the only legitimate media through which the Ministry communicates with is a misnomer that we encourage the Ministry to immediately correct and disabuse itself thereof.

We further raise concern with statements that the Ministry, should it decide to open the seal culling areas to the media, would in fact agree terms with the state media. The Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources cannot be a player and referee in its own game. Should the media have an interest in covering the seal harvesting process, it is not up to the ministry to decide how this is to be covered by the media except for safety issues, otherwise this becomes not media coverage but a public relations exercise and putting the media on a leash. MISA does not believe that neither the state-owned media nor the independent media were set up to carry public relations exercises on behalf of the government, but to inform citizens correctly and also represent a cross section of views in society, government included. Journalists, whether working for the state or private media have an obligation to be independent, fair and balanced and not follow directives.

In light of the controversies of the seal harvesting process as well as statements made by the relevant Ministry, MISA calls upon the government of Namibia to open the Sea Scal colony to the media as part of enhancing access to information and an understanding by the general citizenry as to how this industry operates. Attempts to bar the media using nonexistent laws as is currently happening only adds to unnecessary anxiety, promotes secrecy and a culture of fear in which the media are viewed suspiciously and with contempt by authorities. We call upon the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine resources to revisit its policies on media relations and respect and treat all media institutions in Namibia as equal and more importantly open its work and its dealings to wider public scrutiny. In a democracy such as Namibia, government business is done on behalf of citizens and is best done in the open with access to information provided at every turn. We remind the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources that the media, in all its diversity, shades and colours, are key players in communicating messages back and forth between a government and citizens.

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