Namibia has ratified major human rights treaties in order to signal its readiness to carry out its obligations to protect human rights. These obligations have now evolved into dialogic interactions like the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which assists UN member states to carry out peer-review assessments of their human rights records. Since 2006 when the Human Rights Council (the Council) created the UPR, most UN member states have gone through the mechanism at least three times including Namibia.
As a unique procedure, the UPR allows for the democratisation of information that helps to strengthen human rights development on the ground in UN member states. This information is supplied by both state and non-state actors who focus on various thematic areas of human rights. Some of these issues include socio-economic rights, civil and political rights, children’s rights, rights of women and vulnerable groups and others.
More recently, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the urgent reliance on digital technologies as the sole basis of interaction by many across the world, it has become clear that digital technologies are no longer luxuries. Asides this, the growing importance of online interactions has demonstrated the need to protect human rights online just as they are required to be protected offline. Therefore, digital rights as a thematic focus has become important in order to protect human rights today at various levels including at the UPR. Primarily, these rights are freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of information and censorship of content, right to equal access and opportunity and the right to data protection and privacy on the Internet.
These rights are also beginning to generate the necessary attention including in Namibia. At the second cycle of the UPR in 2016, Namibia received 219 recommendations from 88 countries and accepted 191 of them. Only one of them referred to the right to freedom of expression and the press.
On 3 May 2021, at the third cycle of the UPR, Namibia received 268 recommendations from 105 countries. It received 3 recommendations that touch on access to information, right to freedom of expression, media freedom, ensuring journalists’ safety, cybercrimes regulation and data protection. It also received various commendations for its progress on a free and independent press. These recommendations and commendations are largely due to Namibia’s current standing with respect to its human rights records generally and digital rights specifically. Namibia is one of the four countries rated free in Africa by the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report. It has also maintained this rating for the past four years.
Some of the recommendations received by Namibia was from Canada and recommended that it:
“ensures that the existing cybercrimes and data protection and privacy legislation is fully in compliance with international human rights standards.”
Latvia also recommended to Namibia that it “promotes and protects the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as media freedom and safety of journalists.” Greece also recommended that Namibia “takes concrete steps to improve the safety of journalists, investigate incidents of attacks on journalists and implement the United Nations’ Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.” In addition, the United States also recommends that Namibia “prioritises fighting corruption by enacting an Access to Information law…” Armenia and Barbados also commended Namibia’s efforts to ensure a free and independent press.
While Namibia re-committed itself to the protection of the right to freedom of expression online and offline in its most recent report submitted for review, a number of digital rights issues continue to persist in Namibia. For example, as highlighted in the Joint Stakeholders’ report to the 38th session on Namibia by Small Media, Collaboration on International ICT Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Internet Society Namibia (ISOC Namibia), for Namibia to fully protect digital rights, it should consider the review and enactment of some laws and policies. Some of these laws include review of Article 21 of the Namibian Constitution that expressly refers to decency and morality, defamation and other potentially harmful and vague words as limitations to the right to freedom of expression.
Others include the need for the repeal of the Protection of Information Act №84 of 1982 in the light of the proposed Access to Information bill as the former is often used to gag the media. Additionally, Section 4 of the Namibia Central Intelligence Services Act 10, 1997, which “prohibits persons from accessing information on grounds of national security” should also be repealed. Part 6 of the Communications Act should also be amended through the repeal of Section 9. In addition, the Act should criminalize unauthorized interceptions and surveillance of citizens. It was also recommended that it operationalizes its Universal Service Fund while also enacting cybercrimes, data protection and privacy legislation.
In summary, Namibia has demonstrated its commitment to the protection of human rights especially as seen in its adoption of nearly 90% of recommendations made to it by other UN member states from the previous UPR cycle. However, such commitment must be constantly renewed as the challenges posed to human rights protection continue to grow. Borrowing its own words from its recently submitted national report,
“Namibia remains committed to strengthening its policy and legislative frameworks in order to improve the implementation of human rights for all by addressing challenges to full implementation. We will continue to engage key stakeholders, and take note of international best practices emanating from our international relations in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda and drive the universal goal towards respect for human rights.”
Namibia is encouraged to re-dedicate itself given these commitments and adopt these recommendations on digital rights protection in order to consolidate its hard work on human rights as one of the shining lights of media freedoms in Africa.