Today (May 03, 2018) marks over two-and-half decades the World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated. The day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to celebrate the fundamental principles of Press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world; to defend media independence and to pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty
This year, the World Press Freedom Day is celebrated under the theme: ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’ and will cover issues of media and the transparency of the political process, the independence and media literacy of the judicial system, and the accountability of state institutions towards the public.
Media, transparency of political process
During the 2014 General Elections, MISA-Botswana observed the interaction of the media and electoral bodies for parliamentary and local government elections. While it was established that the media performed exceptionally well, the following recommendations were made:
The IEC should work more closely with the media to improve and intensify voter education, especially on electoral processes to be followed.
State broadcast media should be transformed to public service broadcasters which is accountable to the public through the legislature rather than arbitrary government enforcement.
Establish, through the BOCRA Act, provisions for media conduct during election time particularly the equitable distribution of air time to political parties and candidates during the election campaign period.
That the BOCRA Act of 2013 be amended to provide for community broadcasting licensing to facilitate communication between communities and their policy makers, and thereby promote the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution of Botswana.
That on top of enacting the Access to Information Law, there must be access to election-related information as this is integral to the integrity of electoral processes.
That MISA and other media organisations should train their staff/members to promote principles of ethical conduct and fair, accurate and balanced coverage of election news and political party manifestos.
That the media should further familiarize itself with ethical and professional principles outlined in the Guidelines in Media Coverage of Elections in the SADC Region.
MISA still stands by these resolutions and is currently working to engage all the relevant stakeholders to achieve them ahead of the 2019 elections. MISA however wishes to express concern regarding Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) which government is intent on using in next year’s election.
The media has covered the matter extensively and notes with concern that despite ample proof that EVMs are not temper proof, government insists on using them for the 2019 General Election against wide public disapproval. We urge the IEC, government and other stakeholders to engage each other rigorously to safeguard the integrity of elections next year. While MISA supports all efforts to make voting efficient during Election Day, we are sternly opposed to processes which introduce doubt about the validity and credibility of the election. Enough examples exist in the region and around the world which show the consequence of a questionable election, especially political violence which does not only put lives of citizens in danger, but make it hard for the media to do its job. We therefore urge that the EVM question be resolved before next year’s election to avert any adverse consequences.
According to the World Press Freedom Index which ranks 180 countries utilising such indicators as Media Independence, Self-Censorship, Rule of Law and Transparency, Botswana ranks 48th with 24.93 points. While government often takes pride in other indices which project the country in good light, it never comments nor reflect on this index and the baseless arrests, detentions, threats and assaults of journalists in the line of duty by law enforcement organizations such as The Botswana Police, The Directorate on Corruption & Economic Crimes, The DISS and others- which have become rife in the last 5 or so years. We urge the new Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi to engage media bodies and other stakeholders to exhaustively discuss the importance of a free press, to cultivate within his administration a culture of good relations with the media, because failure to do so has the potential to hurt the country’s image and hard-earned democracy.
Archaic Media Laws
We also call on government to overhaul all archaic laws which continue hamper the work of the media. While MISA abhors unethical and illegal conduct by unscrupulous media practitioners, we believe that there is no basis for government to conduct itself criminally and undemocratically in cases where honest mistakes are made, particularly considering that Botswana does not have the Freedom of Information Act which is integral in ensuring access to information and that the media reports accurately.
We urge President Masisi to redeem government and play a key role in ensuring the normalization of relations with media, particularly to play a role (as a stakeholder) towards the capacitating of the media to do its work without interference, fear or favour.
The Media Practitioners Act 2008
MISA would like to express a specific concern with the Media Practitioner’s Act (MPA) (2008); the media, government and other stakeholders have a responsibility to agree on a minimum basis to protect the public from media excesses and abuse- as well as to protect the media and encourage it to play its role in advancing democracy, rule of law, transparency and accountability without undue and illegal interference. Instead of threatening to force the MPA down the throats of journalists, government should play a role (as one of many stakeholders) in promoting the viability and survival of media bodies such MISA, Botswana Media Workers Union (BOMAWU), Editors Forum and the Press Council of Botswana (PCB). These media bodies play an important role in the media’s self regulation. Media self regulation should be promoted to the fullest extent because it plays an important role in guaranteeing that the public is protected from excesses of the media as well as guaranteeing the media’s independence. MISA believes that the new administration, particularly President Masisi has an important role to play in these issues which require a serious paradigm shift between both the media and government.
This term gained usage following the ascendency of American President Donald Trump. While the concern behind its usage is part of a necessary debate about the need for the media to report truthfully, fairly and in a balanced manner, it has a dark, anti-democratic ideological application which seeks to discredit genuine journalistic work. MISA acknowledges that journalists make mistakes in their work sometimes, however, we argue that while mistakes are never defensible especially where due diligence has not been done, many mistakes journalists make on duty are made in genuine pursuit of the truth.
People who are subjects of news stories reserve the right to debate the media and refute its reports if they have credible information contrary to what is carried. If the media is wrong, aggrieved parties have several recourses which include the right of reply, retraction as well as defamation suits, especially where there is calculated mischief to tarnish subjects of the story for un-journalistic reasons: However, where media houses and media practitioners genuinely do their job in the public interest, it is not only morally bankrupt for their work to be termed “Fake News” as Government Spokesperson Jeff Ramsay recently did regarding a story carried by The Botswana Gazette- but is also a tyrannical attempt to silence divergent views and scrutiny. MISA is aware that the term is more often than not used by people who are irritated that the media is asking them hard and necessary questions.
However, actors who spread fake (untruthful and fictitious) content serve a totally different role than what journalists do. These actors are often not journalists and only serve criminal ends that have nothing to do with doing work in the public interest and for transparency or accountability, like genuine journalists do.
It is for this reason that we call on President Masisi to dissuade the usage of this dark term within his government, especially by people ducking their responsibility to account to Batswana.
We also urge President Masisi on a serious note to consider replacing Jeff Ramsay because he is one of the people from the Khama administration who helped cultivate a culture of unaccountability which comes with acerbic language and phrases like “Fake News” which are designed to de-motivate the media from asking difficult questions, especially about specific unethical conduct of government officials. Ramsay has overstayed his welcome at the communication service and serves no useful role except to put strain on government and media relations.
MISA would also like to appeal to the Masisi administration to review government advertising policy in private media. There is enough evidence that government advertising ban under Khama crippled the media over the last few years. This has led to media houses retrenching media workers in unprecedented numbers and failing to provide a conducive working environment for journalists. We hear arguments, often, that the media has no right to expect advertising from government. We find this argument disingenuous because not only is it but government’s primary role to do that in a market economy like ours, but it is equally true that every industry receives substantial work from the government which is the biggest consumer of services in the economy. Some sectors of the economy would not even exist without government work, for example, the construction industry. Private media therefore deserves the same access to revenue from government.
Advertising in State Media
Government should also re-consider competing for advertising with the private media, especially by either stopping advertising on RB2, Botswana Television, The Daily News and Kutlwano. It does not make sense why Mass Media would seek advertising revenue when government media is already funded by the tax payer. Government should consider stopping this practise altogether or directing 80% of its advertising to the private media as this will most certainly guarantee its long term survival. We urge government to engage media owners, media bodies and other stakeholders in attending to this issue as soon as possible. As much as government has neither plans to run its own supermarkets to tender for the school feeding program nor construction companies to tender for civil works, it makes no sense why it would seek to compete with the media industry for business. We therefore demand that government withdraws from ‘media business’ and leave the industry to private sector. This would direct much needed resources to the industry, helping it grow.
Media Freedom at Mass Media
We encourage government under President Masisi to allow our colleagues at RB1, RB2, Botswana Television, Daily News and Kutlwano the freedom to do their job without fear or inhibition. MISA implores government to change state media into public media and allow journalists all the editorial independence necessary to serve the public equally and without political influence as has been the case under previous administrations. Media workers at Mass Media are trained, competent professionals and should not be reduced to propaganda tools. This will also grow democracy in Botswana and encourage Batswana to trust the current and future governments as they would not only be transparent but also reflect the diversity of views, cultures and languages that make this country one of Africa’s best democratic nations.
Rule of Law, Accountability
Over the last 30 years, the media has played a critical role in holding power to account, to uphold the rule of law and accountability. Unaccountability and corruption has led to public funds going into several billions being wasted in the NDB and Owens Conning Scandal in the 1990s and later the Palapye Glass Project, Serowe Stadium, Morupule Power Station and currently the National Petroleum Fund.
If it was not for the media, sources and whistle blowers- the corruption, lack of oversight and sheer incompetence involved in these scandals would have gone unreported. However, it is remarkable that even with the media revealing phenomenal wastage of public funds over the years, perpetrators are not held accountable to the full extent. The recent Auditor General’s report shows government is bleeding money at every level due to purposeful corruption and every unethical conduct in the book, in part due to lack of oversight.
MISA implores government, particularly President Masisi to set himself apart from past administration by reviewing all procurement processes and expenditure at all levels of government to close the tap on the billions of Pulas the country is losing. The president should empower parliament, law enforcement and the media to unearth corruption and unaccountability to the fullest extent.
We also urge the president to remove from government unaccountable and corrupt officers who encourage bad corporate practises as they are detrimental to the economic viability of the country. The president should have no fear of removing any public officer no matter how high or low ranking, who is corrupt and unaccountable.
It is for this reason that MISA applauds the president for firing the Director General of the Directorate on Intelligence Services (DIS), Isaac Kgosi, who proved at the recent Public Account Committee proceedings that he is a law unto himself. Kgosi represented the worst kind of rogue within government, and besides his potentially corrupt conduct, he brought the sort of instability that was a serious danger to the country’s security which he purported to protect. There are many Isaac Kgosis within government, and we urge President Masisi to smoke them out one by one and ensure that government has professional and ethical workers who do not work against the interest of the country for their personal gain.
MISA would like to applaud journalists for their gallant work in reporting which continues to expose corrupt and unethical conduct within government and the private sector. We also celebrate sources who point journalists to stories or provide documents and proof of wrong doing.
We would also like to thank captains of industry, government officials and other authorities who always field questions and answer questionnaires in time to enable journalists to do their work. MISA thanks all media stakeholders who promote the work of the media, especially those helping to promote free press.