On Wednesday 18th April morning, the nation awaited the arrival of the victorious Botswana contingent from the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. A boisterous mood characterised that build up as members of the public gathered to witness the team arriving at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport. As always, the media fraternity prepared to cover the event like all before it.
It would seem the Botswana National Olympic Committee had other ideas. Journalists were met with police officers and BNOC officials who had the idea that private media’s access to be limited but rather that only Government media be given vantage points from where to cover the event. Some areas were closed out to journalists of non-state media, and in some cases state media officials were given instructions to supervise non-state media journalists. By whatever warped criteria BNOC and Police officials instructed that private press be denied direct access to athletes. This obviously frustrated media professionals. The result was that journalists were manhandled by police officers as they sought to get angles where they could properly record proceedings.
The attitude of BNOC is shocking to say the least. It stinks of a very self-obsessed point of disposition. It would seem our gentlemen and women at the sport body have forgotten that indeed it had been the private press that has been covering the Gold Coast games the entire fortnight the team was in Australia. Private Press photographers captured some of the most iconic photos of these games. How the strategists came to the conclusion that now that the team had landed in the country, the private press’s utility to the BNOC’s objectives had expired beats us. We await an explanation from the BNOC. Therefore, the BNOC unleashed onto journalists, a very excitable team of police officers. Journalists were told that only the Government media was allowed to catch images close.
BNOC should be reminded that both its operations and those of its beloved friends at Government Multi-Media Complex, are funded by funds paid by the same people they sought to ban from the event. Every month individual reporters and individual media houses sign cheques to the Botswana Unified Revenue Services so people like those police officers manhandling young women can actually put food on their table. Not only that, the readers and audience of the private media, the overwhelming majority of whom are middle class, are citizens of this country, they pay tax. It cannot be that BNOC and the police determine that the entire population of Botswana be force-fed live streaming and stories from government media exclusively. The idea that only Government media deserves to record this country’s history smacks of medieval thinking. It smacks of sheer arrogance for the BNOC and the Police to deem private media to be second class citizens in this country. They are not and they won’t be.
This is not just shocking coming from the BNOC, but specifically coming from people who are under Minister Thapelo Olopeng’s supervision. Himself a self-confessed friend of the media, we would have expected better treatment from not just the Minister personally but all institutions under his supervision.
The degeneration in the civil standards of the police service is a concern. It has become normal for Police officers to routinely harass journalists in the course of their work. It is a phenomenon we observed with increasing regularity in the last decade. We thought it was a culture inculcated from the top leadership given that it was always an open secret that the former President Ian Khama had little regard for journalists. It would seem therefore that our Police Force (the more suitable term) is still stuck in that time warp, where every Police officer sees a journalist as an enemy to be harassed and fondled at will. We have been observing this with increasing concern from the unlawful detention of journalists without access to lawyers, to the recent manhandling of female journalists recording a police arrest. We think this calls for urgent action from all media bodies and indeed it is something we will face directly in the coming days. We will seek audience with the leadership of the Botswana Police Service with a view to correct this collapse in professionalism by those in uniform.
We find this turn of events disappointing because we for a moment thought that the new Presidency would usher in a new era of media and state relations. Two weeks ago, then outgoing Chairman of the Botswana Democratic Party, and then incoming President Mokgweetsi Masisi addressed journalists at the ruling party’s headquarters in Gaborone. He explained in detail how he would like to work with the media. A man who has always been open to engaging with the media, we would hope that this episode would be of concern to him lest it starts him on the wrong footing.
We will be engaging with all relevant stakeholders involved in this sorry affair and going forward with any other institution that seeks to maintain this dismissive attitude towards one of the major partners in our democratic space, the independent media.