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NBC pledges equal free airtime for parties

The Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) has pledged to allocate equal free airtime to all parties and presidential candidates registered for the upcoming elections. Parties are also free to purchase additional airtime from the NBC for further broadcasts.
In 2009 talks between the NBC and the parties about free airtime broke down after opposition parties alleged that the formula being proposed would heavily favour the ruling party. As a result there were no free-to-air broadcasts. Swapo went on to pay for their broadcasts ahead of the 2009 election while the opposition did not and therefore did not feature on the national broadcaster. The situation raised eyebrows among some election observer missions, especially since state broadcasters are usually called on to provide equal or equitable access for all parties.
The exact breakdown and schedule for broadcasts on television and radio will not be known until after October 29 – which is the deadline for parties and candidates to register for the November 28 election. Presently, there are 18 political parties registered with the Electoral Commission of Namibia of which 16 are active. If broadcasts are allocated equally between at least 16 parties it could mean that parties will have only a small number of slots. Any party that can afford to pay for further broadcasts therefore stands to gain considerably from the greater exposure. As in 2009, it would seem that only Swapo will be able to afford more broadcasts.
The decision to allocate broadcasts equally does not affect news coverage on the NBC’s various news bulletins and programmes. This will still be decided based on the NBC’s internal editorial policy and ‘newsworthiness’. Several opposition parties have expressed concern about possible bias towards the ruling party in news coverage. The NBC has a tendency to focus on rallies above any other party or candidate activities such as media conferences or ‘walkabouts’. This tends to favour Swapo which organises by the far the most rallies countrywide.
However, despite misgivings about the NBC’s news coverage, parties and media freedom organisations have broadly welcomed the decision to allocate party political broadcasts on an equal basis. In many democracies, such broadcasts are allocated on a proportional basis depending on parties’ support levels at the previous elections.
The NBC’s move is in keeping with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections which state that there should be “equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media”. It is also in agreement with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which calls on state parties to “ensure fair and equitable access by contesting parties and candidates to state controlled media during elections.” Namibia has signed but not yet ratified the African Charter.
Pictured: NBC Director-General Albertus Aochamub

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Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.