Zoe Titus was our most recent guest on the Visionaries web series of discussions, which include free-expression changemakers like The Washington Post’s Martin Baron, Ugandan poet Stella Nyanzi, and Corinne Vella, sister of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Perhaps you have come directly from the video, and you have lingering questions about the media landscape and democracy in Namibia. Or perhaps you are seeking more information about Zoe Titus before you sit down to the YouTube discussion.
To begin, let’s introduce the illustrious Zoe Titus. The International Free Expression Project met Titus when we featured her face and story in a public-art exhibit in Downtown Pittsburgh based on IFEX’s Faces of Free Expression gallery of free-expression giants around the world. You can view our virtual exhibit online now.
This is Zoe Titus’ Faces of Free Expression illustration by the talented Florian Nicolle. View other portraits of free-expression advocates in our virtual exhibit.
From the beginning of her career, Titus showed a single-handed drive beginning with her work at the public-interest newspaper The Namibian, which is, in her words, “advocacy journalism at its best.” She then became deeply involved in promoting media rights with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the regional branch of which she became executive director in 2012.
Through her work with MISA, Titus has defined the media-rights landscape in Southern Africa. Titus led the Zimbabwe Journalists Under Fire Campaign, which grew into the SADC (South Africa Development Community) Journalists Under Fire Campaign. These initiatives created infrastructure to sustainably advocate for journalists’ rights that had been infringed by governments. Titus also spearheaded the African Platform on Access to Information. This long-term, multi-level campaign led to the successful implementation of new freedom of information laws in 23 African countries.
Now, we’d like to delve more into two intriguing statements Titus made during the episode.
“Democracy is wasted on Namibian citizens.”
Titus described the opinion that democracy is wasted on Namibian citizens because they do not actively stretch the boundaries of their rights. Since these rights were so hard-won, she believes that Namibians need to be diligent in maintaining them.
Namibia became an independent country in 1990; earlier, it was called South West Africa, and it was under the administration of the South African government and apartheid rule. The democratically scripted, rights-based constitution that Namibia installed at independence was a radical shift from this system. The constitution established legal equality for all people.
The issue, Titus points out, is that these codified rights do not necessarily extend to actual free expression in everyday life.
Given the ebb and flow of a democratic system, Titus argues that free-expression advocates need to consistently challenge their rights to ensure that they are consistently upheld in laws and the court system. She uses the example of Zimbabwe as an authoritarian state where citizens did not vigilantly challenge their rights when they had the chance. Zimbabwe is ranked as “not free” by Freedom House and 130th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index (Namibia, by comparison, has been Africa’s highest-ranked country in RSF’s Index since 2019).
“These rights are there; they are enshrined in most of our constitutions, but it is incredibly important that citizens challenge those rights because otherwise they would not serve a purpose.”
MISA, as described by Titus, is a social movement fulfilling this role in society: pushing at the parameters of these rights to ensure that they remain firm in the face of creeping authoritarianism, government surveillance and COVID-19 rights infringement. One of MISA’s biggest initiatives is identifying, documenting, formally reporting and then creating legal cases for journalists having their freedoms violated.
By the way, apathy is not only a Namibian issue: “Our Own Worst Enemy” by Tom Nichols draws an interesting parallel between the Namibian and American democracies, discussing “the growing narcissism and nihilism of the public” as being the greatest threat to democracy’s future in the U.S.
The proliferation of nonprofit, advocacy journalism in Namibia
This is the second intriguing point that Titus makes during our Visionaries episode. She explains how free expression, advocacy work and civil-society organizations were well-funded by international institutions and donors following the fall of apartheid. However, there was a 20-year expiration date for this funding, after which donors turned their attention elsewhere. Titus also notes that there “is not a rich culture of philanthropy in Africa itself.”
This drying up of outside funding has created the necessity of, in Titus’ words, “lean, mean, effective and innovative” solutions to ensure the sustainability of Namibian and other South African organizations. One part of this is an increased collaboration between existing organizations; the other part is the proliferation of newer, smaller outfits with an advocacy bent — NGO media, individual bloggers and freelance investigative journalists.
These two types of media are in a tug-of-war: traditional media houses that hope to ride out the funding deficit and this crowd of smaller startups operating on much more limited budgets. The exciting innovation that small startups are able to explore is dampened by a trust deficit between them and older newspapers, which have cultivated a trusting readership over decades.
So, will traditional media become obsolete in Southern Africa due to the “new kids of the block,” or will these small organizations simply be a “flash in the pan,” soon bankrupting out of existence? Titus explained that this is a trend that she will be following closely in the next few years. For example, The Namibian is a relatively new, innovative, public-interest-oriented newspaper that is thriving in Namibia. This will be a debate that we, too, will be paying attention to, both in Southern Africa and in the United States.
Our Visionaries series of discussions aims to inform our viewers of free-expression trends and situations happening around the world that might not make the front page of the newspaper every day. To watch installments with our other Visionaries guests, visit ifep.io/visionaries and subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to know about upcoming episodes.