Press freedom vs national security

SHARE   |   Sunday, 21 September 2014   |   By Kwaku Gyanteh Kentshitswe
Press-freedom is necessarry for the public Press-freedom is necessarry for the public

I went on a rant on Twitter recently about the current situation in Botswana and it wasn’t the first time. Truthfully it was only a few tweets not a rant. The word suggests a passionate tirade on a chosen topic but it was none of those adjectives but rather a short, almost resigned plea for a change in the state of affairs.

So many things have been happening right now.

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Firstly, the leader of our chief spy agency, Isaac Kgosi, has been found to be making questionable dealings with international companies and allegedly using people to front for these companies that have direct deals with the said agency, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Agency. These shady dealings were somehow leaked to the press through a docket filed by the state prosecution. It seemed someone was leaking the top corruption investigators, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime DCEC’s report before the case had been heard and that was where I became concerned. I am not a legal expert but my feeling is if you have evidence against a suspect being splashed across newspapers before it has been presented in court, this only serves to defeat the ends of justice.

Just like the Oscar Pistorius case, a trial-by-media is already at play with every newspaper columnist not entirely versed in legal matters offering up their insight on how the case will end. A more helpful, if not, conclusive, column came from a certain writer who painted a picture of DCEC as a toothless dog tied to a tree, an arm too influenced by government officials and so, too inescapably bound by legal ties to effectively see its end and successfully bringing criminals to justice. It has been suggested, albeit proved, by Wikileaks that the then Vice President and current leader of the republic, Seretse Khama Ian Khama, had stepped in to interfere and stop corruption investigations into his twin brothers’ business at the time of his tenure a few years ago. 

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Charges of money laundering, having a standard of living disproportionate to his income, obtaining by false pretences by a public servant, were brought against Kgosi. As fate would have it, this time in the form of powers that be, took swift action to make sure the case would never see a day in court. As if the writer had seen the future in a crystal ball, deduced from previous evidence from cases of high-level production, no action has been taken so far to hold Mr Kgosi accountable. All these revelations were good and well for the public but for me, after weeks of seeing sensationalised headlines in various papers, it became slowly a noise that I wasn’t keen on listening to. That is where I feel the media fails; in a bid to awaken the wits of the general public who are “duped” in a way, it creates an adverse effect of pacifying the already meek Motswana giving the impression that this is normal procedure in government. Another issue is how this information is attained.

Media houses are within their “right” to give information to the public but when the circumstance of that information dissemination contravenes the set laws of the country then they too act in the same unscrupulous manner as the perpetrators of whichever crime that they are exposing. It is this same irony of clumsily riding the trapeze-esque line without a safety net that has media leaning more towards menace than hero. As is documented throughout history, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Our very own neighbours to the north, Zimbabwe, sought to empower the majority natives by redistributing land but that backfired resulting in international sanctions and embargoes that brought the economy to its knees. This snowball effect from a singular good natured intention ultimately plunged a nation, and its millions of citizens, into a bottomless pit of economic disparity.

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Secondly, the death of opposition member, Gomolemo Motswaledi, has had more drama around it than a single episode of a Telemundo telenovela. His death under suspicious circumstances just a few months before the general elections was a huge blow to his Union for Democratic Change (UDC), a splinter party from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) seemed to pick up steam. Coming at a time when his leader, Duma Boko had revealed a hit list allegedly containing members of the opposition, it did more than raise the suspicion of ordinary citizens. Some branded  Boko and his comrades as attention seekers at the suggestion of both government and the ruling party, seeing it as a desperate move by the UDC to woo voters and cause trouble, while others took it with the seriousness of an Ebola outbreak.

While it is up to the individual to make up his or her mind, it is the job of the media man to present the facts as is. Their job is to go further and analyze, interpret information and provide an accurate and logical summary of events that is fair, balanced and intelligible to the common man. 

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The problem also becomes more complex when said information is not provided freely to make these analyses. Is it not then the investigative journalist’s job to dig where he/she can to source such information? 

Is it not then the employee’s job, an individual placed not only to serve the company but to be an extension of the public, to service the people and uphold the values of justice, fairness, honesty and productivity expressed in the constitution and said company’s mandate, to provide information covertly so, that would out corrupt practices in the workplace? 

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Is it not the right and responsibility of the ordinary citizen to be outraged and express this concern not only for the rot in the apparent democratic state but the lack of swift and rightful action by the representatives placed in parliament as well as the justice system? 

Notwithstanding, a crusade, however righteous, should take care not to employ the same tactic of stepping over or even trampling the statutes of the law as it would set a bad precedent. It is imperative, especially in a democracy such as ours, to keep the powers-that-be in check by demanding accountability; however it should not be done in a manner that renders the law obsolete or compromises their operational structures.

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These recent missteps by the media only gives the already irate government, dissatisfied with what it deemed as hypercritical journalism overstepping into its members’ boundaries, a reason to tighten the muzzle that is has or tries to place around the media. Politicians over the years have tried to pass bills that, if implemented, silence what they see as rabid terriers ready to tear them into pieces if left free. A regulated print media would mean every article will have to go through a government department for approval before printing and that is where we should draw the line. 

While the issue of self-regulation is still a thorn on the government’s side, care should be taken by media houses to maintain some semblance of ethics that will lead to restoration of reporters' status as tellers of truth as opposed to the warped view held by our representatives of reporters as perverse purveyors of words and phrases; peddling unproven facts and manipulating them how they see fit.

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In Botswana, filmmaker Moabi Mogorosi’s production, Hot Chilli, a competition is set by the village chief to find a favourable suitor for his daughter. In that quest, men from far and wide are summoned challenging them to eat a bowl of hot chilli without gasping for air. The protagonist uses cunning to win the competition and in turn the princess’ hand in marriage. One by one they try and fail; some turning blue and fainting and some leaving before they even try. The "hero" wins with the power of words through a clever monologue narrating his attempt while taking breaths between each sip.

 Media’s autonomy should not be an excuse or fortress that they use to defer criticism while they mis-inform the public. .

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If some of these bills are enacted, some of which are, then it begs the question; will journalists and the general public have to employ secret language and codes, much like the besieged intelligence agency, just to send messages and have debates about issues of national interest on public platforms? Will they, like the protagonist of Hot Chilli, have to acquire a skill of saying everything without saying anything just to get by?

It’s said that truth is like chocolate; a little gives pleasure, too much is lethal. Who has a right to speak their truth and what is the impact of that truth? Those are questions everyone should ask themselves whether its journalists, politicians or the ordinary citizen on social media.

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The balance between national security and individual freedom is now at more risk than ever. The freedom to information may have overarching consequences on the judicial system though beneficial and also a basic civil liberty under the Human Rights Act. Over the past few weeks, I have heard impassionate pleas, in both dialogue and written form, arguing for both sides. As an ordinary citizen it is through and because of these liberties, afforded under a democratic system, that I am able to scrutinize the media and government without fear of favor and for this I am grateful. This is the system of government I want for my children.

It is through the guise and influential pedestal  of a position of power, be it a platform where opinion can be spread as far as God’s eye can see or an office where legislature can be rewritten, that the most harm can be done if intent not based on an impactful and just end is a source for all action. Therefore, it is up to us as citizens to judge, question and ascertain if whatever meal we are being served is nutritious and beneficial for our temples and beyond. As a majority we hold sway over what we regard as food for life.



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