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All too often, declarations remain simply pieces of paper filed away and forgotten. But the 1991 Windhoek Declaration is different and its impact is still being felt today.
Written by Henry Maina, the Regional Director of Article 19 in Eastern Africa.
The Windhoek Declaration was adopted in 1991 at a UNESCO conference held in the Namibian capital, Windhoek.
At the time, the winds of change were blowing for a second time after the liberation from colonial rule as many countries in Africa embarked on a path toward more democracy. Until then, efforts at independent, professional journalism had been a rarity and had come at a huge price. African journalistic outlets have a history of being reverential of authority in order to protect themselves and remain economically viable.
But the situation has been changing fast, not least thanks to the Windhoek Declaration, which has contributed to changing the media landscape in Africa.
Catalyst for new organizations
The gathering in Windhoek marked the beginning of a solidarity movement of journalists, editors and media owners and the emergence of media development organizations across the continent.
Formed in 1992, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which has chapters in eleven countries of the Southern African Development Community, promotes independent and pluralistic media.
One of MISA's first projects was an email alert system to make Africa and the rest of the world aware of violations of media freedom as soon as they occurred. Regular conferences were held to share experiences about setting up and maintaining newspapers against all odds.
Similar organizations were initiated in Eastern and West Africa with mixed levels of success. The Media Foundation for West Africa has emerged as a strong sub-regional actor on media freedom advocacy. The Media Institute of Kenya and the East African Media Institute took off but became moribund not long after their infancy.
Discussions on forming a global coalition started at the Windhoek conference and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) was established a year later. IFEX is now a worldwide actor on freedom of expression.
The UNESCO conference in 1991 described as the Windhoek Declaration "a catalyst in the process of encouraging press freedom, independence and pluralism in Africa" and resolved to extend such declarations to other regions of the world.
It also recommended to the United Nations General Assembly that 3 May be declared "International Press Freedom Day." The UN did so in 1993.
The Declaration has left its mark around the world in other ways as well.
In 1992, a UNESCO media conference in Kazakhstan adopted the Declaration of Alma Ata, declaring full support for the Windhoek Declaration and acknowledging its importance as a milestone in the struggle for free, independent media around the world.
The Declaration of Santiago (Chile), in 1994, expressed similar support. Two years later, the Declaration of Sana'a (Yemen) stated that the establishment of truly independent, representative journalists' associations, syndicates or trade unions and editors' and publishers' associations was a priority. Finally, in 1997, the Declaration of Sofia (Bulgaria) urged "all parties concerned that the principles enshrined in this (Windhoek) Declaration be applied in practice."
The celebrations in 2001 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Declaration – also held in Windhoek – were used by activists to propose and adopt a new document that would address issues specific to broadcasting, the African Charter on Broadcasting.
The worldwide recognition of the Windhoek Declaration and the solidarity of African journalists made it possible to use both documents as powerful lobbying tools. They kickstarted the liberalization of media laws in Africa and encouraged many journalists to start independent newspapers, for example "The Post" in Zambia in 1991, "MediaFax" in Mozambique in 1992 and "The Monitor" in Malawi in the same year.
The demand for truly public broadcasters has become a common call around the continent – although with mixed success so far. Community radio stations are flourishing in many countries – even though many struggle financially.
The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, adopted in 2002 by the African Union (AU), was influenced by the spirit of Windhoek. The AU Declaration demanded that "all state and government-controlled broadcasters should be transformed into public-service broadcasters".
The Windhoek Declaration also informed the Midrand Declaration on Press Freedom in Africa, adopted by the Pan-African Parliament (PAP) in 2013, as well as the Midrand Call to Action on Media Freedom in Africa, also adopted by the PAP in the same year.
Still wrestling for control
Twenty-five years after Windhoek, there has been some progress regarding media freedom in Africa countries, but an "independent, pluralistic and free press," as the Declaration demanded, is still far from being a matter of course.
Politicians still want to control the breadth and depth of coverage given to issues. They do this through political edicts, deployment of state advertising, complacency when cronies intimidate and attack journalists, and the forced closure of media houses.
The media still have to tread a very tight rope lest they be accused of being foreign mercenaries or political and economic saboteurs. They can be prosecuted under pre-independence laws that penalize journalists for publication of false news, sedition, insult and/or criminal defamation.
The Midrand Call to Action deplored this state of affairs: "Since the turn of the century the building of democratic institutions in many parts of Africa, and with it the promotion of freedom of expression, has been stagnating, or even regressing." It accused governments of not living up to the expectations created by documents such as the Windhoek Declaration or the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression.
Is the Windhoek Declaration now just another piece of paper, merely of historical interest? It is not. Given its impact over the last 25 years, its legacy lives on. Windhoek has proven that journalists can come together in solidarity and change the world, at least the media world.
This article originally appeared as part of African Free Press – a collection of 40 essays by African journalists and media experts exploring the current state of media freedom in Africa. African Free Press, an online dossier and special edition newspaper, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, a landmark statement of free press principles adopted during a UNESCO seminar on promoting an independent and pluralistic African press. African Free Press is a project of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and supported by DW Akademie.
The original article was published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license and has been adapted for publication on #mediadev.