By Chloe Howcroft

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The Namibian Broadcasting Corporation is in the midst of a financial crisis, with significant programming and job cuts on the cards. With elections just over a month away, how will the public broadcaster continue to provide the public with vital information? 

NBC board members announced early last month that a retrenchment of approximately 156 jobs would take place starting from 11 September due to escalating financial stresses, which will potentially require a government bailout. This would see a reduction in staff from 569 to 413 employees.

NBC announces cost cutting measures:

The crisis allegedly began at the end of last year, when the government announced more budget cuts for the public broadcaster. NBC has received almost N$100 million less in funding over four financial years, from ‘N$237 million in 2014 to N$140 million in the current financial year.’ N$385 million is supposedly needed from the government to prevent the broadcaster from going into liquidation according to Board Chairperson, Sven Thieme.

Information and Communication Technology Minister Stanley Simataa expressed, however, that the government would be trying not to resort to job cuts, especially in a climate where unemployment is an increasing issue in the country. The Namibian Press Agency (NAMPA) reported that Simataa has “pleaded with industry giants to throw a lifeline to the financially beleaguered Namibian Broadcasting Corporation.”

Attending the 2019 Editor’s Forum of Namibia journalism awards in Windhoek last week, Simataa also referred to the rise of ‘fake news’ and the importance of “strengthening the role of traditional media and by upholding quality journalistic standards.”

Programming suspension

Part of the austerity measures to cut costs include reducing or even suspending programme air time. The English news bulletin will only air at 20:00 as the 10:00 and 13:00 news bulletins have been cancelled.

Live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings will only be aired on the NBC 2 channel with delays and become the  only other operating channel besides NBC 1, since all other channels have been suspended.

Radio broadcasts will also continue although with a reduced schedule. However, indigenous news programmes have been completely suspended and are not currently being produced.

Election coverage

With a general election scheduled for 27 November, concerns over the impact for vital coverage of the democratic process are increasing, which prompts the question: how problematic could this be for democracy?

Another question has also arisen in relation to the timing of the upcoming elections and the retrenchment plans. Quoted in the weekly newspaper, Windhoek Observer, Finance Minister, Calle Schleitwein, said: “We have looked at the NBC for years now and the situation at this enterprise is not improving. We understand that it is a public broadcaster with an important role to play and a mandate to deliver. However, the way that this mandate is being delivered is proving to be unsustainable.”

He continued: “We understand that the current situation will impact the broadcasting of the forthcoming elections and this demand is tantamount to blackmail.”

Schleitwein also explained that at the start of September NBC received N$10 million and will continue to do so until the next budget. However, the ministry is reluctant to provide more funding, maintaining the belief that the public broadcaster needs to be more accountable for its spending of government funds and carry out a thorough audit. He also expressed doubts that the public broadcaster generated N$100 million per year for the past three financial years.

NBC’s Director General, Stanley Similo, responded to Schleitwein’s allegations in an exclusive interview with Informanté Radio, saying, “It is wrong for the minister to make allegations about the timing of the announcement. It is not a political matter.”

He expressed that the public broadcaster’s financial situation had indeed been recorded in order to keep the Executive Director and line minister informed. “For the [financial] minister to question the revenue of the NBC which has been consistently above N$100 million per year for the past three financial years and to accuse the board of directors of standing in front of him with begging bowls for yet another bail-out is wrong.” 

His message to the public was that “If you look at the issues of governance…if the board did not act the situation would most probably deteriorate even further.”

NBC DG disappointed over Finance Minister’s assessment of the broadcaster’s financial woes:

Board Chairperson, Sven Thieme, also explained that, “We have tirelessly worked towards providing a clean audit…A bailout is only happening if there is an adequate plan where expenses and income do not meet the plan… The current cash flow is not meeting the obligations the institution [has].”

“I have absolutely the hope and that we with wise minds find a way of turning the situation around but this takes willing people to get around the table and to understand even at the moment we could be spending money to reduce costs… So although it’s not a commercial entity, by spending money we could be reducing lots of money to lessen the burden on our national budget.”

Staff salaries

Criticisms have also been made by opposition party National Unity Democratic Organisation (NUDO) secretary-general, Joseph Kauandenge, about the large salaries senior staff members of the Namibian public broadcaster supposedly receive. “We are confident enough to say that the executives are by far and large equally to be blamed for the financial situation at the NBC, as they are overpaid,” he said in New Era Live.

“It is regrettable that when there are cuts to be made at any state run enterprise, it is always the low paid employees who suffer as a result of mismanagement and over the top salaries paid to those in leadership positions.”

Nonetheless, he is also in agreement that the NBC should be able to fulfil its mandate for the public, concluding: “Democracy is a costly exercise, that much we know, however, it is essential that government steps in now and provide the much needed funds to NBC so that our democratic rights cannot be affected, where Namibians will be denied the right to hear and listen to all participating political parties before making their final decision who to vote for.” 

NBC’s acting Director-General, Umbi Karuaihe Upi, denied that top executives at the broadcaster were being overpaid: “One thing you also have to take into consideration is that most people on average have been working here for 25 years and some even longer. This means if you worked for so many years, your salary is at a particular level based on tenure. We are not paid out of context, no one here is overpaid.”

Funding concerns across the region

The funding crisis at NBC occurs at a time when other public broadcasters across the region have also been experiencing financial distress. KBC in Kenya, MBC in Malawi, UBC in Uganda and ZNBC in Zambia, among others, have all recently been confronted with funding pressures and concerns over their long term sustainability. According to Balancing Act, “the business model for digital broadcasting in smaller African TV markets is not sustainable”

SABC, however, which has been grappling with a debilitating debt crisis and could have experienced a potential broadcasting blackout, will receive R2.1 billion rand as part of the requested R3.2 billion rand government bailout, having met all the conditions required of them.

Read more: SABC receives R2.1 billion bail out

But funding pressures are not solely an issue for public broadcasters alone. Namibia’s private media sector has also been experiencing financial difficulties in recent years with several newspapers migrating online and laying off staff. Commercial broadcaster, One Africa Television, had also resorted to retrenching staff members in 2016, when news production became financially unsustainable.

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Header Image: Set of NBC Good Morning Namibia. Credit: PMA