Gwen Lister

The Namibian, Namibia.

In 1978, Gwen Lister and Hannes Smith, editor of the Windhoek Advertiser, founded the Windhoek Observer, a weekly newspaper. As political editor of the Observer, Lister was harassed and threatened by the South African authorities because of her political reporting and outspoken criticism of South Africa’s policies in Namibia. Not only did she endure police searches of her home, but she also was put on trial – and acquitted – for allegedly possessing banned documents.

In May 1984, the Publications Board in Pretoria, South Africa, banned the Windhoek Observer, primarily due to Lister’s political reporting. After raising funds from abroad, she challenged the ban in front of the Publications Appeal Board in Pretoria, and succeeded in having it set aside. However, while she was in South Africa petitioning the ban, the management of the Observer demoted Lister from political editor to reporter. The entire staff walked out in protest in support of Lister. They were dismissed and Lister resigned.

In December 1984, Lister distributed a document to various news media that was mistakenly sent to her by the government. It detailed the authorization given to the security police to intercept her mail. Several reporters went to press with the document, but their reports were banned by South African Security Police. Articles on the document appeared in several newspapers, including the Windhoek Advertiser and the Rand Daily Mail in South Africa. Lister was jailed for distributing and “publishing” the letter. Upon her release, her passport was confiscated. During this period, she was confined to the capital and required to report to the police three times a week. The charges were eventually dropped.

In 1985, with Namibia still ruled by South Africa, Lister started The Namibian newspaper and continued reporting on politics. In June 1988, when she was four months pregnant, Lister was detained because the government wanted to know how she had obtained and published a secret document that detailed a plan to give greater powers to police and institute a State of Emergency in Namibia. She was released after several days due to international protests. She continued to receive telephone death threats, primarily from whites who objected to The Namibian’s role in exposing human rights violations perpetrated by the South African security forces. It was often unclear who was making the threats, because the police and military denied knowledge of them. Pamphlets were distributed around Windhoek, claiming that Lister and others who supported SWAPO would be assassinated. Lister was also the subject of constant surveillance from the government security force.

In 1988, the offices of The Namibian were almost destroyed by a group calling itself the “White Wolves.” The White Wolves were a group of right-wing whites who operated in South Africa and Namibia at the time. They firebombed The Namibian’s offices, put tear gas in the office air system and attempted to intimidate reporters by constantly harassing them with death threats.

Namibia finally became independent from South Africa in 1990. The Namibian remained independent and continued its watchdog role over the new government’s ruling party, SWAPO. Through the 1990’s Lister continued running The Namibian, putting up with constant harassment and hounding from both the government and private groups. In 1999, she learned that in 1991 the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a mercenary group set up by South African military intelligence to eliminate opponents, had sent an Irish mercenary to Namibia in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her.

In December 2001, the Namibian Cabinet banned all advertising by government departments in The Namibian because of what it termed the paper’s “anti-government” articles. The ban remains in place today. In May 2002, Namibian President Sam Nujomo also banned government departments and officials from purchasing The Namibian with state funds.

Despite these obstacles, Lister continues to publish The Namibian and write a weekly political editorial. The paper has a daily circulation of more than 20,000 copies, making it the largest circulation and, according to many observers, the most respected daily newspaper in Namibia.

Lister has served on the advisory committee of the International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Women’s Media Center. She was one of the founding members of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and was a member of the UNESCO Press Freedom Committee. She also serves on the advisory board of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

In 1992, Lister received an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 1995, she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. In 2000, she was named one of the International Press Institute’s 50 Press Freedom Heroes.

Gwen Lister is the first Courage in Journalism Award winner from Namibia.

Highlights