The Media Practitioner’s Act is demonstrably unconstitutional, and violates sections of the constitution and hence should be repealed, says Gaborone Central Member of Parliament Phenyo Butale.
Butale was presenting a motion on Friday requesting parliament to repeal the Media Practitioners’ Act (MPA) which has remained dormant because of opposition by the media fraternity to among others, the accreditation of journalists. Butale’s motion is due for debate next week.
The Media Practitioners Act requires registration and accreditation of all media practitioners in Botswana with the newly formed Executive Committee- despite the existence of the independent Press Council. The difference between the Press Council and the Media Council in the MPA, he said, is that the former is comprised of independent media workers, whereas the latter is comprised of government appointees. “ Self-regulation is now statutory regulation. Furthermore, the provision is not clear on whether accreditation of media practitioners may be refused and under what circumstances,” said Butale. This uncertainties he says cannot be ignored for it later may be used to deny access to journalism. “The provision fails the necessary test of precision and clarity,” he said.
The political appointments of complaints and appeals committee according to Butale compromises press freedom. Section 11 of the MPA empowers the minister to appoint the complaints committee while section 17 empowers the Minister to appoint the Appeals Committee. Butale argued that because of these occurrences “the dangers of social engineering, self-censorship, and government interference suddenly become present in a country where, for most of its history, democracy and human rights have been seemingly miraculous reality” .
The youthful legislator who himself is a qualified media practitioner and boast of a well detailed curriculum vitae in the field also pointed out that the broad definition of media practitioner by the Act was itself problematic. According to Butale the MPA practically defines most of the public as a “media practitioner” and therefore liable for a criminal penalty.
The Act defines , a media practitioner as a person engaged in the writing, editing , or transmitting of news and information to the public. This Butale says does not distinguish between a businessman, an investor, a correspondent, a journalist, an opinion writer, a book publisher, a cartoonist, a photographer, and a caller in a radio program. “If anyone engaged in ‘transmitting information’ is to be registered and accredited with the council and therefore eligible for up to three years in jail or a P5000 fine, it is certainly not a long way to go before the state simply controls the right to know,” said Butale, adding that the act is not just of importance to journalists. "Every Motswana and every democrat must be concerned," he said.
Given uncertain, vague and unclear meanings that the MPA gives, Butale argued that if (section 6) is attacked before the high court, the court shall have no option but to strike it down as it is inconsistent with section 3(B) read with 12 (1) of the constitution of Botswana.
For a long time, Butale says the local media environment has been described as free, without persecutions of journalists, but says the latest iincidents however are starting to qualify this freedom of the press, especially since the enactment of the Media Practitioners Act (2009). “Freedom House, in its 2011 index, described Botswana’s media freedom as partly free as opposed to free,” he said.
MISA Botswana has since the enactment of the Act opposed it stating that it violates the basic principles of democracy. The local media body has indicated that they have already submitted proposals to OSISA and UNESCO to assist them to push for the repeal of the act.