An indispensable bulwark in the advancement of democracy

“The United States is deeply concerned by the arrest of newspaper editor Outsa Mokone by the Government of Botswana on charges of sedition relating to an article published by his newspaper, The Sunday Standard.

The United States strongly values freedom of the press, which is a key component of democratic governance. Freedom of expression and media freedom both of which foster the exchange of ideas and facilitate transparency and accountability, are essential components for democracy. Outsa Mokone’s arrest is inconsistent with these fundamental freedoms and at odds with Botswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance.” – United State of America Department of State statement on the arrest for sedition in Botswana of Outsa Mokone (Washington, 10 September, 2014)

To many observers of African contemporary politics, the arrest of a journalist in Botswana came as a shocker, least so, the open condemnation of its government by the American Department of State. For a long time, Botswana has been hailed as a shining example of democracy in Africa, particularly during the epoch when the continent was led by repressive and despotic regimes. What most commentators and scholars did not heed, however, was that Botswana had inherited from its former colonial master a suite of laws which Britain had exported to the entire Commonwealth of Nations. Over time these laws were repealed in Britain because of their anti-human rights postulations. The sedition laws, a charge under which Outsa Mokone, Editor of The Sunday Standard newspaper, was arrested and detained has been rendered obsolete in many countries, thus the American condemnation of Botswana came as no surprise.

Whereas the arrest of a journalist in Botswana might be regarded as an isolated incident, it is a truism that the country’s statute books are replete with laws that are not media friendly and whose effect is chilling on Freedom of Expression. The National Security Act, for instance, makes it an offence punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years for one to publish anything considered “classified” and the classification of any material does not require any more than a mere endorsement by a government officer of a stamp reading “classified” on a document. And there is a plethora of such similar laws whose documentation has been ably done by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Botswana Chapter).

Previous regimes of the country have been shy to apply such laws against journalists, which gives credence to the State Department’s assertion that Botswana has a “strong tradition of democratic governance.” However, from the time he was army commander through to his ascension as President, Ian Khama has always harboured a hostile attitude towards the local media. As Commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and without any backing of law, Khama banned The Botswana Gazette, a local weekly newspaper, from circulating and being read inside the country’s biggest military barracks, for the sole reason that the paper had run a story he disliked. He does not read local newspapers, he has previously publicly proclaimed. During the early days of his reign, Khama formulated what he called the 4 D’s, an acronym of the blue print of what he regarded as the basic tenets of his governance, comprising democracy, development, dignity and discipline (he was to later add to the list “delivery”, thus changing the acronym to the 5Ds). The aspect of media within the 4Ds nomenclature is discussed under the heading ‘Discipline’, contending as it were that the Botswana media is indisciplined!

Khama has during his tenure of office publicly pledged that his government would fund all defamation suits instituted against the media by public officers. The hostility against the private media seems to have permeated the public service and other organs of government. Under Khama, the country has witnessed the greatest soar in defamation suits, with the courts responding in kind by awarding some of the most astronomical damages awards in the world. Government ministers display open hostility towards the private media, as recently shown by the public spectacle in Mogoditshane, when, in the presence of SADC Election Observers, Assistant Education Minister, Patrick Masimolole, threw an unprovoked tantrum at a journalist who sought to record a presentation he was giving in public. Of late, Khama’s decision directing that the ruling party will not participate in the celebrated ongoing American Government-sponsored Gabz Fm live radio election debates, without any cogent reason, has left many, even within the BDP itself, dumbfounded.

Accessing information in public coffers by the private media, even information not considered classified or state secret, is a feat requiring ingenuity on the part of a journalist. Information on matters directly bearing on the nation is hard to come by. Attempts by Dumelang Saleshando, Botswana Congress Party leader to bring into law a Freedom of Information Bill was abruptly shot down by the ruling party legislators. At every opportunity Khama has taken a bash at the local private media, while harnessing the State owned media outlets to propagate his aversion.

Trends the world over have been characterised by movement towards a self-regulatory media regime and governments have lent their support to this. Not in Botswana. The efforts of the media fraternity to have a self- regulatory body, The Press Council of Botswana, like other professions, that could allow peer oversight and self-discipline, have been singularly spurned by government. Instead of promoting and encouraging the initiative, government came up with the Media Practitioners’ Act, whose object is to ensure control of the media by government.
The environment under which the Botswana private media operates is hostile and the occupational hazards abound.

Surprisingly, however, the Botswana private media is seen by many as an indispensable bulwark in the advancement of democracy in Botswana. Despite the hostility from government, it is regarded as the authoritative source of uncensored information. The goodwill that the private media enjoys by far surpasses that enjoyed by the State owned media outlets, which are generally perceived as window dressing mediums for the ruling party.

As Botswana goes to the general election this Friday, very few would dispute the sterling task that the country’s private media has discharged to the nation – from not simply informing the people, but exposing high level corruption that government would have rather kept secret, to bringing to fore instances of abuse of power and sensitising the populace on its rights and obligations. Truly, the private media has been a real partner in the development of democracy in this country. The election will be won and lost by the politicians, but the greatest winner of them all will be the Botswana private media.

Last modified on Monday, 27 October 2014 15:44

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