Gwen Lister Shepherded Newspaper through Tumultuous Times, Promotes Media Progress in Namibia
By Jessica Baumann
Gwen Lister, Namibia
2004 Courage in Journalism Award
January 19, 2012 -- For 2004 Courage in Journalism Award winner Gwen Lister, “courage isn’t as much a tangible act of bravery as a belief and passion for what one does.” This passion has carried her through difficult years when she lived with constant death threats, suffered imprisonment, and was harassed and threatened by both the government and private groups.
Lister points to the Courage in Journalism Award as a source of support. “One of the most difficult things for me was working alone, as a woman, without the support of others and in a primarily man's world as it was at that time,” she says, “The Courage Award came as the first real recognition from other women of my work over the years. For this reason, it meant a lot to me at the time, empowered me to do more, and to increase my efforts to encourage other young women to go into journalism, and it remains one of the most special awards ever bestowed upon me.”
Lister was born and raised in South Africa, but moved to Namibia in the 1970s to begin her career as a journalist. She recalls, “It was while growing up in South Africa that I came to experience the ugly face of apartheid, and resolved when I grew up, to become an activist for change. At the time I believe [sic] that it would happen quicker in what was then South West Africa (now Namibia) than it would in South Africa itself.”
Although many encouraged her to go into exile and work with liberation movements, Lister was strongly committed to remaining in the country. She wanted to show the world what was happening in Namibia under the “jackboot” of apartheid. Lister emphasizes that she sought to “to give SWAPO (the social democratic political movement fighting against South African rule) a 'human face', showing the people, including whites, that they were not the 'terrorists' and 'communists' and the 'black threat' that the colonial regime made them out to be through their blanket propaganda.”
Significant risk accompanied her commitment to journalism. Her home was raided by police and she was detained by authorities at four months pregnant. Even after her release she continued to receive threatening telephone calls. The offices of her newspaper, The Namibian, were firebombed by a group of right-wing whites known as the “White Wolves” in 1988.
The harassment didn’t end after Namibia became independent in 1990. The Namibian offices were firebombed again by a group planning to overthrow the new government after the paper reported on the conspiracy. However, Lister notes that the majority of harassment post-independence has been verbal rather than physical. “After independence,” Lister says, “the new Government saw the newspaper as 'anti-government' but used more subtle means to try to thwart the newspaper, primarily through imposing a Government ban on advertising in The Namibian.”
Despite these obstacles, Lister affirms that The Namibian works in a freer environment then it did before independence. Namibia now has an unalienable Bill of Human Rights, including the right to a free press. Additionally, the 2001 government ban was lifted this year by incumbent President Hifikepunye Pohamba.
Lister says that democracy remains fragile within the country and that the government is suspicious of independent media. She believes the “watchdog” role of journalism remains critical in Namibia today. “Corruption,” she asserts, “has begun to spiral out of control so while there is peace and freedom which were not there before in Namibia, the societal scourges of graft and nepotism and entitlement have led to the increased marginalization of many and an even bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
Lister credits the survival of The Namibian to paper’s commitment to journalistic excellence. She asserts the paper was able to combat attacks by “telling it like it is” and practicing high standards of professionalism and accountability. She believes all media should adhere to a code of ethics and that it is important for journalists to be people of good moral standing.
A firm believer in principle over profit, Lister feels media “should be run by journalists and not by managers and business people.” Her newspaper is set up as a non-profit trust, where the profits get put back into the community and not into the pockets of wealthy shareholders. The Namibian is owned by the trust and uses the funds for community projects such as a weekly “Youthpaper,” aimed at educating the country’s youth and an annual inter-regional soccer tournament.
Lister provides candid insight on the future challenges Namibian news organizations face. “Namibia,” she states, “has witnessed a sudden plethora of new media initiatives, but many of those starting them don't have to experience to sustain them or don't realize that the establishment of such media requires a tremendous amount of hard work over a longish period of time in order to become self-sufficient.” Lister maintains that more work needs to be done to develop good journalism skills, particularly investigative ones, so new media initiatives are equipped to deal with the challenges ahead.
Lister has several future projects in mind. She plans to work with The Namibian trust to promote media development, including increasing the skill levels of investigative journalists and trainees. Another objective is to develop new media initiatives, particularly in radio. Lister looks to the future with passion and determination, declaring that “journalists must be passionate about what they do in order to make a difference particularly in countries and societies where great inequalities exist.”