Watch out Namibia, or Big Brother may be watching you. While Namibia has been steadily moving towards a completely free democratic state, new surveillance technologies and a history of corruption threaten to bring about democratic erosion and produce a stealth authoritarian regime reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Namibia has come a long way since its first election in the early 1990s. Today, the country is considered mostly free, with a constitution that protects civil rights, free and fair elections, and an independent judicial branch.
However, there are some worries that the Namibian government may be using legally ambiguous and invasive communications and surveillance technology. These practices constitute a threat to many democratic institutions, such as the rule of law. If the government is using these technologies against their people, with no transparency or apparent legality, they may begin to violate civil rights protected by the Namibian constitution.
By utilizing communications interception and surveillance technology, the government can pose a major threat to civil society. There have even been allegations against the intelligence and state security agencies, claiming that they have started targeting youth movements, religious institutions, and non-state actors as threats to national security.
In addition to this, the government and ruling SWAPO party consistently caution Namibians not to disturb the “peace and stability” of the state, especially when the party is publicly criticized. A major example of this occurred in 2009, when the SWAPO party responded to allegations of cheating by the opposition leader by charging the opposing Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) party president with compromising peace and stability in the region.
In early March 2016, the Human Rights Committee reviewed the report of Namibia, finding some concerns. One concern was that communication interception centers were operation despite the Communications Act (Act No.8 of 2009) was not legally in force. Other major issues were gender-violence against women and large amounts of discrimination within the country.
In 2017, the Namibia Central Intelligence Service held two closed-door workshops on preventing and countering violent extremism. Many proposals resulted from these workshops, but two are of major concern to democratic institutions should they be implemented. The first is that the government would require telecommunication service providers to register SIM cards under the name of the owner. The other proposal was to implement technology to monitor social media in order to detect extremist posts.
The issues with these proposals, which would be put in place to fight terrorism and crime in Namibia, is that they could potentially threaten the state’s democratic system. Because these mechanisms would be used on Namibian citizens, they could be used to spy on and regulate internal critics and political actors that are in opposition to the current governing body.
Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg pointed out that governments may use democratic forms to achieve anti-democratic ends. One such way in which states can do this is by emphasizing threats to national security and the purity of the homeland in order to restrict the freedom of civil society, political actors, or the media. The new surveillance techniques have a high potential for abuse and because there is little to no government transparency, their actions cannot be held accountable to the public.
A big concern is that political paranoia, created by public criticism of the government and internal fractures in the ruling SWAPO party, is the primary reason for the increase in government surveillance. This wouldn’t be the first time that the government tried to censor perceived threats from journalists and other political actors.
During the 2014 election period, journalists were harassed by security forces and police for taking pictures at public events. Additionally, the Namib Timmes Editor Gareth Amos was assaulted and imprisoned by police officers, followed by the assault on a NBC Radio Producer by SWAPO councilor Ambrosius Kandjii in 2014.
The 2016 Human Rights Report, published by the United States State Department, claimed that the most significant human rights issues in Namibia were the slow pace of judicial proceedings, discrimination and violence against women and children, and child labor. However, there was also a decent amount of corruption by government officials. This was accompanied by lack of public access to government information, attacks on media freedom, and criticisms of the press.
In April 2016, two journalists were detained and questioned. The government claimed that it was due to the journalists potentially capturing material that could hamper national safety, but the journalists said it was due to the deputy prime minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, being upset by the questions they asked during an interview. There were also reports of journalists for state-owned media practicing pro-government self-censorship.
The intimidation and dilution of free media is a major threat to democracy, so it is worrisome that it has been so prevalent in recent years. This can threaten a democratic institution because people may be getting false information, so they are not able to vote in favor of their own best representation.
In addition to media censorship, the 2017 Freedom House report says that the defendants in a corruption case, which dates back to 2016, attempted to have the trial judge removed. This is a blatant attack on the judicial system, which should operate independent of influences from other branches of government.
Steven Levistsky and Daniel Ziblatt claim that democratic institutions can be undermined by attempts like this to capture the judicial system by firing and replacing non-loyal members. If the defendants had been successful, it would have been a sign that the government was using the judiciary to protect themselves from prosecution and even harass opponents.
However, the attempt at corruption failed and the Judiciary of Namibia claims it is committed to strengthening the rule of law in order to protect democracy in the state. While Namibia may have potential threats to their democracy, the institutions put in place by the constitution seem to be operating in favor of a democratic state. As long as citizens and the government work together to protect these safeguards, Namibia will likely not erode into an authoritarian state.
*Image by Michale Gaida at Pixabay, CC0