We are gathered here today to witness history. We must consider ourselves lucky and privileged; and I believe one day we will tell our sons, daughters and grandchildren that we were there when the first union of Botswana media workers, BOTSWANA MEDIA AND ALLIED WORKERS UNION, was launched. This day is a culmination of efforts that started many years ago, way before some of us joined the media profession. I am told that men and women who came before us, some of them now deceased, tried to launch a union of media workers, but failed because of unexplained circumstances. This could explain why a lot of people were sceptical when we first convened at MISA offices and mooted the idea of forming and registering a union of media workers. I am told that some very highly placed officials remarked privately that the union will never see the light of day. But we were serious then, and are even more serious now. We dug into our own pockets and sacrificed our time and money to make this union a reality. This is because we believed then that the time was right to form a fully functional media workers union that would fight for the rights of media workers within and without work, advocate for professionalization of the media industry, enhance the image and perception of the industry in society and improve relations with key stakeholders. One may ask what inspired us to do this. Perhaps it was the work of fate. Media workers who came before us had it good. They thrived in an era when the economy was flourishing and Botswana’s democratic credentials were at their peak. Media houses were making a lot of money and they had the full support of government. Therefore they paid their employees well. Relations with government were rosy and media workers did not feel threatened. There was no advertising ban. Media workers were given scholarships to study outside in countries like Australia, Zambia, USA and Zimbabwe.
But things changed from the late 90s onwards. The economic recession hit us hard. Tensions emerged between government and the media. Journalists bore the full brunt of such tension as they faced hardships, rejection and hostility when they went about doing their job. Media houses started paying meagre wages and exploiting media workers. We joined this industry at the wrong time. Yet we prevailed. We became militant, brave and principled change makers. The hardships did not discourage us...they turned us into better men and women. I can state today with pride that today’s media worker is driven by an undying love for our country, a strong belief in democracy, transparency and fairness...and a dream of a better Botswana. That is what made us stay in this profession even though it is at its most deplorable and unenviable state. And that is what inspired us to do all we could to register BOMAWU. And today I can safely say to you ladies and gentlemen that BOMAWU is here...and here to stay. We got a lot of assistance from our friends and well wishers. Our elders in the union movement, BOFEPUSU, BOPEU, BFTU, the corporate world, government, media owners, non state actors, media institutions, international diplomatic missions and many others held our hand and helped us in many different ways. I believe they helped us because they believe in the same principles that we hold dear. They believe in a free and fair press. They believe in an open and transparent democracy. They believe in social justice and equality for all. Those are the principle that we at BOMAWU hold dear. We are also cognizant of the fact that the road ahead will not be easy. It will be filled with challenges and turmoil. But we will soldier on and face our challenges head on. Most pressing in our itinerary is the need to fight for better working conditions for media workers. Working conditions in the media have never been worse before. Since last year, two media outlets closed shop. Most of the media workers who lost their jobs were never compensated. Most media workers work without contracts. Their salaries are cut randomly according to the whims of the employer. They are fired willy-nilly without being accorded a hearing. Yes, labour laws are flouted with abandon in the media industry. Salaries are often paid very late and some media workers’ contracts are amended without consultation.
Part of the blame lies with the media. The rot that exists in the media industry can only be sorted out by the media industry itself. It takes introspection, consultation and first admitting that we as the media could be part of the problem. As BOMAWU we are willing to sit around the table, discuss and start on the journey to recovery. We are willing to talk, so let’s talk. The second problem lies with the acidic relationship between government and the media. AS BOMAWU we believe the media is an integral part of any democracy. There can be no democracy without a free press. We also believe the media has an important role to play in nation building because it is the link between government and the people. Therefore it goes without saying that by perpetuating their animosity, the media and government are abdicating on their responsibilities and their obligation to the people. They have abandoned their responsibility to serve, protect and inform Batswana and they are now pursuing selfish agendas for their own political and economic gain. We cannot tolerate such a sorry situation. We hold our media ethics in high regard. We therefore encourage both the media and government to smoke the peace pipe and reconcile for the sake of this country.
Mr Vice President, we want to be part of the reconciliation process. We want to do this, most urgently, because the government ban on advertising is hurting us poor media workers the most. We did not start this war Sir, we don’t even know what the war is about. It is between you and the media owners. We are just innocent workers who have been caught in the cross fire. And we are paying a heavy price. We are losing our jobs. We are paid peanuts. Media owners, government, please stop this war. To my fellow media workers, I thank you for your solid support from the beginning until now. I say to you let’s soldier on Comrades. This country needs us. We have sacrificed ourselves before. We will continue sacrificing ourselves. But this time it will be for a cause that we believe in. This time we will be unionised. This time we are BOMAWU. We are shaping the future of this country. We are fighting on the corner of truth and democracy. We are fighting for media freedom.
We believe we should be allowed to investigate and write stories without fear or favour. We believe in a government that is transparent and willing to share information. Not this secretive government that refuses to answer even the most basic questions, and then rushes to broadcast rebuttals with “Mmmuso o tshwenyegile” over minor errors that are actually a result of the same government’s refusal to share information. In carrying out our duties, we will be free, fair and unbiased. We will resist temptation from financial and political influence. We will report without fear or favour. We belong to no man, no institution, no political party, no company. We only serve the nation. We are BOMAWU. We must work hard to restore the people’s confidence in our profession dear Cdes. Our people have lost trust in us. They don’t believe in us anymore. Some even hate us. That is not right Cde. We must restore that trust. We can only do that if we uphold journalism ethics. If we resist the urge to sensationalise stories. If we stick to the facts. If we research our stories thoroughly and avoid being used by outside interests. The media must be fair, impartial and professional. That is what BOMAWU believes in. Our institutions have collapsed. BOMAWU must work hard to reinvigorate MISA and empower our oversight institutions like Editor Forum, Press Council. We must bring back Media Awards and lobby government to allow state media workers to participate. We must usher in a brighter tomorrow. We are BOMAWU. VIVA Comrades.
Speech By BOMAWU President Phillimon Mmeso At The Official Launch Of Botswana Media And Allied Workers Union (BOMAWU) at Ave Maria Conference Centre on 02 September 2016.