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Gwen Lister, Namibia

World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)

As editor of The Namibian, Gwen Lister’s efforts to support the principle of press freedom in Namibia, both before and after independence, and her determination to defend the public’s right to know have never wavered despite concerted efforts to silence her through harassment and intimidation.
Lister is also co-founder and former chairwoman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which fosters free, independent and diverse media throughout Southern Africa. She was born in East London, South Africa, on Dec. 5, 1953. After graduating from the University of Cape Town with a bachelor’s degree in 1975, she began her journalistic career with the Windhoek Advertiser in Windhoek, Namibia.

Together with the former editor of the Advertiser, Hannes Smith, she started the Windhoek Observer, a weekly newspaper, in 1978. As political editor of the Observer, she incurred the wrath of the South African authorities with her critical reporting on South Africa’s apartheid policies in Namibia. In the six years she served on the paper, her home was raided by the police, and she was tried and acquitted under a host of South African laws, including the Internal Security Act, the Publications Act and the Customs and Excise Act.

In May 1984, when Lister traveled to Zambia to cover Namibia’s independence talks, the South African authorities banned the Observer. She challenged the ban before the Publications Appeal Board in Pretoria and succeeded in having it set aside. The newspaper’s management, however, blamed her for the banning and demoted her. This led to a walkout of the entire staff — resulting in their dismissal and Lister’s resignation.

In December 1984 in what was an obvious attempt to stop her from setting up a new paper, she was arrested under the Official Secrets Act after she revealed the contents of a document that authorized the interception of her incoming and outgoing mail “for reasons of state security.” For some months after her release, she was confined to the Windhoek district, her passport was confiscated, and she had to report to the police three times a week.

The first edition of her new independent paper, The Namibian, was published in August 1985. From the beginning The Namibian was the only paper in Namibia to expose ongoing atrocities and human rights violations against Namibians at the hands of South African security forces. The newspaper helped pave the way for the implementation of the United Nations settlement plan for Namibia, Resolution 435, and was quickly targeted by right-wing elements and the South African security forces. Many issues of The Namibian were confiscated, and an advertising boycott by the white business community was organized by the South African authorities. Shots were regularly fired at the newspaper’s building, and tear gas was placed in its air-conditioning system. In October 1988 its offices were burned down by a group called the White Wolves.

In June 1988 Lister, who was four months pregnant, was detained for several days under Proclamation AG 9, which provided for indefinite detentions without trial. The authorities wanted to know the source for a published document that proposed sweeping new powers for police in Namibia.

When Namibia finally became independent in 1990, The Namibian continued its watchdog role with the new government of the South West African People’s Organization. Lister’s newspaper has successfully made the transition from donor dependency to financial self-sufficiency 10 years after independence from South African rule. The paper continues its fiercely independent editorial stance despite the fact that initial goodwill toward the press has been replaced by growing tensions between President Sam Nujoma’s government and the independent media.