The Windhoek Declaration is a statement of press freedom principles put together by African newspaper journalists in 1991. The declaration was produced at a Unesco seminar, “Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press,” held in Windhoek, Namibia, from 29 April to 3 May 1991; it was later endorsed by the Unesco General Conference. The context for the meeting was set by the various crises Africa had faced during the 1980s; it was inspired by the move toward democratisation in the region that followed those crises, as well as the end of the Cold War.
In short, the declaration was the outcome of a long and frank look at the problems of African print media. The document enumerates instances of intimidation, imprisonment and censorship across Africa. With a strong belief in the connection between a fully independent press and successful participatory democracy, the document calls for free, independent and pluralistic media throughout the world. The declaration also asserts that a free press is essential to democracy and a fundamental human right. At the same time, the seminar participants highlighted the practical problems of journalists in Africa, particularly those related to acquiring up-to-date equipment, building inter-company cooperation and providing adequate training.
Because the declaration is overwhelmingly directed at the printed media, as independent broadcasting was not much of a phenomenon back then, the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the declaration – held also in Windhoek – were used by activists to propose and adopt a new document that would address issues specific to broadcasting, the African Charter on Broadcasting. In Africa, radio is the medium that reaches the biggest number of people.
The date of the declaration’s adoption, 3 May, has subsequently been declared World Press Freedom Day. The document has been viewed as widely influential, as the first in a series of such declarations around the world and as a crucial affirmation of the international community’s commitment to freedom of the press. At the same time, however, the United Nations statement marking the 10th anniversary of the declaration noted the fragility of press freedom in the face of political violence or authoritarianism.
The years since 1991 provide ample reason for worry. Countries that suffer repression, like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or systemic violence, like Liberia, see a concomitant rise in instances of censorship and press intimidation.