By extending an olive branch to the Fourth Estate in his first 50 days in office, as marked by his upcoming Press Conference on Wednesday following another by the DIS last Friday, President Mokgweetsi Masisi is ticking the right boxes. However, STAFF WRITER DITIRO MOTLHABANE argues that it is too early to reach for that Champagne bottle.
When incoming Director General of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security services (DIS) Peter Magosi gathered journalists for a briefing about his road map on Friday, it marked a new dawn under the new administration. Although the jury is still out on the intentions of the spy agency, many believe such interaction buttresses a recent declaration by President Mokgweetsi Masisi ahead of a cabinet retreat that "we are going to work very closely with the media. The same message will be relayed to our cabinet. We value the media as key stakeholders in democracy".
For over a decade now the relationship between Government and the media has been at an all-time low and one of the topical issues owing to an open hatred for newsmen in private practice by the Khama regime. Masisi's ability and willingness to communicate has made him "the most promising salesman we have hired under the most demanding circumstances", one communication expert declared.
Promotion of free speech, free press, sharing of information in an accountable manner are the cornerstones of democracy and accountability to the nation no matter how complex the circumstances. Peaceful co-existence of Batswana has been founded and premised on the capacity and predilection for leaders talking to people, explaining themselves and their actions, being accountable domestically and internationally. The new development is an evolution that promises to reset the country on the path to a true democracy.
Not only was the tumultuous relationship with the past regime problematic for the media to operate freely, Professor Tachilisa Balule, also found in his research on "The Media and Democracy in Botswana" – published at the end of 2017 – that the legal environment in which the media operates is very hostile and unfriendly.
He concludes that there are many laws that severely restrict media freedom in the country, which need to be reviewed to ensure that they do not unduly restrict the work of the media. These include National Security Act (1986), the Intelligence and Security Services Act (2009), and the Public Service Act (2008), which make access to official information held by government bodies very difficult, hence seriously undermining the media's informative role. These laws also give wide discretionary powers to public officials when dealing with the media and impose harsh penalties. "More importantly, the state should enact a law that will allow the media and individuals to have access to official information held by public bodies," notes Prof Balule.
With its faults and imperfections, the role of the media in a democracy is particularly important in so far as it facilitates political communication and debate. The media set the agenda for public debate and significantly influence public opinion on the government and other state institutions. The development and maintenance of a democratic culture require that citizens be provided with information to help them develop opinions and attitudes and make informed political choices. Thus the ability of citizens to engage in significant political discussion is largely dependent upon the freedom of the media to disseminate a wide range of information and ideas. The 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent Press affirms the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press.
The media in a democracy plays two critical functions being the informative role and a watchdog role against abuse of power and corruption where it may occur in society. Media that are supportive of democracy must be free, pluralistic and independent and at the same time accountable to protect and enhance its credibility.
In his analysis of public media in Botswana, Prof Balule cautions that interference with state-owned media and restrictions on covering issues critical of the government have a negative impact on the public media's role in a democracy, as it is relegated to being a mouthpiece of the government of the day. This stifles political debate because citizens need both positive and negative news about their government in order to play a meaningful role in the democratic process.
Prof Balule advises that the role of state media in a democracy would be enhanced if it is transformed into true public service media guaranteed editorial independence in both law and practice. Sources at government enclave suggest that this scenario, which currently obtains at Mass Media Complex, will soon change as promised by Masisi to allow for fair and balanced coverage. Only time will tell!
Because of a weak and fragmented opposition and a moribund civil society, which renders Botswana a de facto one party state, the private media has a bigger role to play as a watchdog to ensure that elected representatives and public officials are accountable to the people. Notwithstanding such huge responsibility, private newspapers in Botswana suffer certain credibility issues, one of which is failure to reflect all the voices within society. They are also accused of focussing on opposition parties and only cover events involving those in powerful positions rather than issues. There is also a growing perception that private media are unethical and unprofessional, a situation that is compounded by a weak or non-existent self-regulation regime to promote adherence to ethics and professionalism in the sector. There is therefore a pressing need for the private media to address the credibility crisis by promoting professionalism through the adoption and implementation of an effective self-regulatory mechanism in the sector.
Prof Balule further observes that there seems to be lack of diversity in the private media, where concentration of ownership in the hands of a few players is slowly creeping into the print media. Prof Balule, therefore, proposes that Government should come up with measures that will guard against the emergence of monopolies in the media sector. He adds: "Government should enact laws and policies that will promote community media – newspapers and broadcasters – as these can contribute immensely to diversity and pluralism. The television sector is still dominated by the state. The regulator should issue more licences to private broadcasters in order to give people alternative sources of information.
Contributing a chapter in a book on Industry Regulation in Botswana, published by Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) in June 2013, Prof Balule expresses doubt about the ability of the Competition Authority to adequately tackle emerging monopolies in print media. There are doubts over the ability of competition law to promote competition in media markets on democratic grounds, he says. In fact, he warns, in many countries around the world that rely on competition law alone to promote a plurality of independent players in the media a dramatic increase in concentration of ownership over the last two decades has been noted.
In the chapter, titled Media Regulation in Botswana- Managing Contested Policy Spaces, Prof Balule advises of the need for special ownership rules in the media to address the special needs of the sector that general competition laws often overlooks, as in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany. Both The Printed Publications Act, 1968 and the Media Practitioners Act, 2008 do not address the issue of competition in media space.
"The trend in most democracies is to allow the print media to self-regulate as an alternative to direct state regulation. While state regulation may be generally aimed at achieving legitimate public interest goals, it often becomes a tool for suppressing critical voices, hence the preference for self-regulation. The co-regulation regime established for the print media in Botswana lacks sufficient independence from the state," he says
The private media in Botswana is so dependent on advertising revenue that without it, many would be forced to out of business. Much advertising revenue is derived from the public sector, which renders the private media vulnerable if these revenues are withdrawn. In recognition of this, Government, as the main advertiser uses this leverage to control media content and punish those who do not tow the line. The fear of losing public sector advertisements also induces self-censorship in the media.
Cabinet first ordered an advertising ban in 2001, which was only lifted after court intervention. A year into his presidency Ian Khama reinstated the advertising ban on private media, accusing them of being unpatriotic and an irritant. Although government officials have repeatedly tried to deny this, to date sources at the Office of the President confirm that government departments and parastatals have to seek authority before placement of advertisements in private media, which is often rejected.
The recent publication of a controversial advertisement, which promoted sexual exploitation of underage children (girls), has also heightened calls for the establishment of an Advertising Standards Authority. According to proponents, the Authority would be an independent body set up by the marketing and communications industry to ensure that its system for self- regulation works in the public interest. It enforces a Code of Advertising Practice, providing the basis of arbitration for disputes within the industry or between advertisers and consumers. Usually it is an independent body, established and paid for by the marketing communications industry, with the aim to ensure the best possible protection for both consumers and of the industry.
It should have Code of Advertising Practice which is based on the International Code of Advertising Practice. It provides a prompt, accessible and cost-efficient mechanism to ensure advertising is legal, decent, honest and truthful. It has a duty to represent the society it serves and to emulate public sentiment, observe all statutes and uphold the Code of Advertising Practice in an impartial and objective manner. Beneficiaries are the general public, government, consumer agencies and the marketing industry.
With all these required, eyes are on President Masisi to see whether he will help in creating thriving media sector that is not restricted in its work and that he will further open up Government – a move that will see a reduction in corruption. Having promised in his inauguration speech that he will set up a Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law, this will only go further to demonstrate that he is a man of his word. Being secretive kills accountability and promotes corruption.