Government's obsession with national security will be put to test when local radio station Gabz Fm sues Parliament for refusing to allow them to broadcast proceedings live from the august house. The radio station notified Parliament of the decision to sue on Thursday following a rejection of their request by the Clerk of the National Assembly B.N. Dithapo the previous day. Dithapo refused to accede to Gabz Fm request, citing financial constraints which make it impossible to host any media or radio stations for longer periods than they have done before. "There are other administrative and security considerations that should be in place before we consider your request. Owing to security considerations we cannot allow into Parliament equipment that we do not have control over," said Dithapo.
The lawsuit will create a platform to test the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) government's commitment to allow for live broadcast of proceedings in Parliament following many years of empty promises. As the quest for media freedom and freedom of expression intensifies the lawsuit will present an opportunity to question the unjustified refusal by the Speaker to allow live broadcast of Parliamentary debates, as done in other democracies. To further stifle open debate, government in the past terminated a programme on Radio Botswana (RB1) where MPs summarised their contributions in Parliament on national radio at the close of business. The programme has since been replaced by a watered-down version where information officers at RB1 present a summary of MP's deliberations, which opposition MPs have complained misrepresent their views.
Civic society and media organisations, international election observers, politicians and activists supporting the promotion of the tenets of democracy have over the years lobbied government to facilitate live broadcast of Parliamentary debates to promote accountability, without success. Political analysts opine that the refusal to permit life broadcast emanates from the fear within the ruling party that such development will give citizens a fair opportunity to gauge the performs of their MPs, which could discredit them when deliberating controversial motions that seek to expose government. Ruling party activists and bureaucrats have defended the status quo under the pretext that government is considering the proposal and putting systems in place to accommodate the proposal for live broadcasts. The response from Parliament on Wednesday flies in the face of all such pretence.
The Speaker of the National Assembly Gladys Kokorwe undertook a countrywide tour in 2015 ‘taking Parliament to the people’ where she promised on numerous occasions that she was in agreement with the proposal for a live broadcast of parliamentary debates. The tour was meant to educate the citizens on the functions and running of parliament. On September 16, 2015 she told a kgotla meeting in Ramotswa that live broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings is a noble idea, although it comes at a cost. On March 03, 2016 Gabz Fm wrote a letter to Kokorwe seeking permission to set up equipment outside Parliament to present live coverage. The radio station, through their lawyer Tshiamo Rantao, said although individuals are permitted to attend proceedings in Parliament, and journalists regularly reported on what transpired there, few citizens are able to be physically present.
There is also a danger of some media practitioners misrepresenting what transpired in the House, said the lawyer. "Gabz FM believes that in order to fully understand and appreciate the political process and the performance of political leaders on all sides of the political spectrum it is necessary for citizens to have access to parliamentary proceedings. Gabz FM believes that, in order to give full effect to the right to freedom of expression in the Botswana Constitution, access should be granted to the media to broadcast full and unedited versions of National Assembly proceedings," said Rantao. He submits that the media has a central position in providing information to citizens to enable them to participate in the political process, and therefore protection of press freedom is prized and valued in all democratic societies. Without a politically aware and active citizenry, he argues, politically elected leaders are not held accountable and the democratic process fails to achieve its purpose.
Rantao posits that although some Standing Orders seem to prohibit live broadcast of Parliamentary debates, they do not trump the Constitution of Botswana, particularly Section 12 (1). The section provides that "except with his or her own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to communicate ideas and information without interference and freedom from interference with his or her correspondence". Gabz FM had requested permission to set up necessary equipment to broadcast live from proceedings on National Assembly by tapping into the already existing public address system, and connecting a cable from the system to equipment located outside Parliament.
"There would, therefore, be minimal disruption to proceedings inside the chamber. Gabz FM is able to provide all the equipment, and cover all the associated costs, and would ensure that only formal contributions made by MPs would be recorded and broadcast," the radio station proposed. The radio station will apply to the high court to set aside the refusal to allow them permission to set up equipment in Parliament for live broadcast of proceedings in the chamber, and to compel the Speaker to grant such permission. Court will also be asked to order that refusal to grant such permission is in violation of section 12 (1) of the Constitution, in particular, (Gabz FM's) freedom to communicate information and the public's freedom to receive information.