A new information bill proposed by the government in Namibia could impact media freedom by punishing professionals who report “irresponsibly”.

Namibia’s Information Minister, Tjereko Tweya, recently proposed a new Access to Information Bill (ATI). The bill would create a new regulatory body to ensure that media professionals and broadcasting organisations do not use information “out of context” and publish biased rather than factual news. The new bill would regulate the media by punishing journalists and broadcasting companies when “reporting irresponsibly”.

“You can have access to information, but if you use it for anything other than what you would have initially requested it for, there should be consequences because it is not being professional,” Tweya said. However, the Minister does not yet know how the body would be governed and who would decide what punishments should be administered to the media.

During a speech at the 5th Gender and Media Summit Awards ceremony, Tweya reiterated his intentions. According to him, the statutory body should be created “as a matter of urgency to ensure that the media is held responsible in the event that they abuse their power to report, write and broadcast, and make themselves guilty of defamation and slander of people’s character in public, and get away with murder. This tendency must come to an end.”

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) opposed the proposed bill as the move would violate the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted in 2002 by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The proposed measure appears to mirror a negative trend which is currently running across the region. Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch, the South African Development Community, which Namibia is part of, should significantly improve respect for human rights across the 15 member countries.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Namibia ranks 17/180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. However, with the new ATI, this level of freedom of expression might not be as secure. “The intent of the ATI is to provide access to information for Namibians, not to stifle them,” said Gwen Lister, chairperson for Namibia Media Trust.

Joseph Ailong, Head of Editors’ Forum of Namibia, said that such an attempt to regulate media would also have a negative impact on democracy.  “It would mean moving from a democratic government to an authoritarian dictatorship,” he said.

The ATI currently remains a proposal and consultations are still underway to determine its structure.

Header image: Windhoek, Namibia. Namibia came 17th in the 2016 RSF World Press Freedom Index. Credits: Michael Paskevicius/Creative Commons