The southern African country of Namibia ranked number 24 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, which was released last month, placing it above the U.S., which was at 43 this year, but representing a drop of 7 places—putting Namibia in the two thirds of countries that dropped in the rankings between 2016 and 2017.
Namibia's president, Hage Geingob, nevertheless took credit for Namibia's relatively high position—the highest in Africa and higher than countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France.
"As long as I am given the mandate to lead this great country, the freedom of the press is guaranteed," the president said at World Press Freedom Day celebrations held in the capital of Windhoek, according to The Namibian.
"This is not to say that we are happy with the status quo in our country," Geingob said in his speech. "Far from it. We want our media to be the freest in the world. We are talking about being number one, not just in Africa, but in the world."
But, like most heads of state around the world, Geingob has a peculiar view of what constitutes a free press. Geingob warned about the need for "accountability," and suggested it could be imposed by the government, to combat the emergence of "fake news."
The media "must guard against becoming lap dogs or attack dogs. They must be the watchdogs," Geingob said. But that's not a free press—in a free and open media environment there will be outlets that act as lap dogs, others that act as attack dogs, and still others that embrace the role of watch dog. The point is that a free market of ideas and speech produces a diverse and self-regulating press.
Warnings about "fake news" and calls to "do something" about it invariably ignore the nature of a free press.
What's more, media watchdogs in Namibia blame Geingob's government for the deterioration of press freedom in the country.
The Namibian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Namibia) noted in a statement reported by The Namibian that while the government markets the country as a human rights and press friendly jurisdiction, the same government regularly threatens members of the media.
"Critical journalists find a refuge on the internet, where they are not subject to control, but self-censorship is common in the state-owned media," the statement said.
The director of MISA-Namibia said the drop in rankings was not surprising. "It was expected, considering some of the issues around media freedom, especially how our leaders such as the president and the information minister have insulted and intimidated journalists, as well as some attempts to regulate the media," Natasha Tibinyane told The Namibian. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
Politicians rarely have a sense of shame of their own, but a free press can certainly help politicians discover it.