Release Serite – UDC tells Govt 

SHARE   |   Monday, 21 March 2016   |   By Moeti Mohwasa
Journalists outside the Gaborone Central Police station Journalists outside the Gaborone Central Police station

Opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) has criticised government for the harassment, arrest and detention of journalists on trumped up charges follwoing the arrest of Sonny Serite on Thursday.

A statement from UDC spokesperson Moeti Mohwasa read:

"The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) has noted the detainment without access to legal representation of a journalist, Sonny Serite by the security agents. Information reaching us suggests that Serite is being detained for writing about the alleged corruption at the Botswana Railways, a company established by an act of Parliament and that continues to draw and enjoy bail-out from the tax-payer. It is further alleged that the security agents are trying to establish the source of his story and intercepted him when he was to meet with a source on a follow-up story. It is further alleged that the reporter was found in possession of a document that he had used in a story that exposed corruption at the sate owned railway company. These questions then arise; is the government really committed to the fight corruption? Shouldn't it work with those who are fighting hard to expose corruption or should it detain them and let the suspects go scot-free? What message is it sending to those who come across corrupt practices and fear victimisation by their superiors if they report such acts?

The Botswana government has over the years celebrated that there are low levels of corruption in the country, while we have argued to the contrary. Below are the reasons why we differ with this narrative. Over the years the government has enacted laws that discourage whistle-blowing. The Acts are among others are; The National Security Act, the Sedition Act and the DCEC Act. This has lead to corruption being under-reported and those who come across it deciding to keep quite for fear of victimisation. The net effect of this has been a situation whereby there is concealment of corruption and the whole world ends up believing that there is little or no corruption in this country. There is a chilling effect which leads to under-reporting of corruption.

We are ruled by a government that does not believe in openness and transparency. It abhors criticism and embraces secrecy. To it, the private media with its ability to raise some questions and expose corruption is an irritation. If it was possible all journalists will be working for government and being controlled. It is bothered that the private media is soldiering on without its unfettered support. It fails to appreciate the need to nurture and support the private media. To them this is an illegitimate child who deserves to be killed. Its contribution to nation building and democracy is not noticed. But it should be noted that state monopoly in the media is not compatible with the right to freedom of expression, as outlined in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. The Declaration further says states should encourage diverse and independent media.

The scandals that have rocked this world were generally exposed by the media. They obviously got the information from whistle-blowers/sources. There wouldn't be the what got known as the Watergate Scandal if it was not for the media. It achieves this through information from sources/whisle-blowers. In the country, the Mogoditshane land scandal, BHC Scandal, the IPM Books Tender Scandal which were uncovered in the early 90s were a result of investigative journalism. Our media has in fact done more that the relevant state departments in exposing corruption. The nation has been saved a lot of money by the watch dag role of the media. They have done this without fear. Sources also have more confidence in them than they do with state organs. Sources/ whistle-blowers provide information which they believe the nation should know to expose wrong-doing. They do so, the pre-condition being anonymity for fear of victimisation. Any move to victimise them will mean that no information reaches the public. The journalist therefore has an obligation to guarantee and uphold confidentiality. This situation has led to what is now known as "the protection of sources", a right that even the international bodies have acknowledged. This the journalist does not only to continue getting information but also in the national interest. 

It is a fact that the Directorate of Corruption and Economic Crime and the Ombudsman owe their existence to agitation and pressure from the press and the opposition. Following the scandals mentioned above, there was a push for a paradigm shift in the fight against looting of state resources. We argued that the police and laws existing then were no longer competent to deal the current trends. The opposition called for the setting up of an independent body that will focus on corruption. We also called for another one that will focus on maladministration in government bodies. It is the the media which provided a platform to expose corruption and set the agenda for national debate on these issues. It should be noted however that these bodies are not fashioned out the way we wanted them to operate. We wanted to have teeth and also to be independent and report directly to parliament. This is how the media helped and continues to help in shaping our democracy. 

Protection of sources in the media is among many of the basic conditions of press freedom. In the Goodwin Vs United States, a view was taken that trying to induce a journalist to disclose his/her source violated his right to receive and disseminate information and also his/her freedom of expression. Other bodies like the European Parliament and committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe concurred. The African Commission on Human and People's Rights meeting at its 32nd Ordinary Session, in Banjul, the Gambia, from 17th to 23rd October, 2002, adopted a Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. In the Declaration there is a right to protection of sources under Principle XV. Our position is that we need Shield Laws to protect the Journalists against being arm-twisted by the BDP government to disclose sources. In the case of Bart Mos and Joost de Haas of the Dutch Dailyt, De Telegraaf, the Hague Court ruled that the national security pretext as used in the case was out-weighed by the protection of sources principle. It thus threw out the stare's case. This was a case where journalists were charged for alleging the existence of a leak in the Dutch Secret Services and quoted from what they said was an official Dossier on Mink Kok, a notorious criminal. They further alleged Kok had obtained possession of the dossier. 

We call upon the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) stop harassment of the private press with immediate effect. Having declared war on the media houses by starving them of advertising, the state is now going for the practitioners and ensuring that it instills fear in them. The opposition and other progressive formations in this country have long called for the introduction of Access to Information Act / Freedom of Information Act, but the secretive BDP is not budging. It should be noted that numerous International bodies which Botswana is a member of, encourage member countries to open up and become more accountable and promote freedom of expression. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa states that everyone has a right to access information held by public bodies. It argues that public bodies hold this information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good. The BDP government should with immediate effect release Sonny Serite from its custody. The harassment of journalists must stop immediately. We now have a journalist, Edgar Tsimane, living in exile in South Africa because of the anti-freedom of expression posture of the BDP government. Lastly we call for the dropping of sedition charges against the Sunday Standard and its Editor, Outsa Mokone. We wonder why the world is quiet in the face of this onslaught on Democracy".