Heroics by attorney Joao Carlos Salbany of Bayford & Associates endeared him to many in the media fraternity midweek, and almost earned him a night in jail when he prevented agents of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) from arresting journalists for over 24 hours.
From midday on Wednesday until late Thursday afternon Salbany stood his ground insisting that the agents follow the correct procedure to effect an arrest on The Botswana Gazette Managing Editor Shike Olsen, editor Lawrence Seretse and reporter Innocent Selatlhwa. But the lawyer plays down suggestions that he played a hero insisting that he was just ensuring adherance to the rule of law and protecting his clients. "I am an enforcer of the rule of law. If that qualifies me as a human rights lawyer then ok," said Salbany reluctantly.
He told The Patriot on Sunday there was no intention on his part to obstruct justice and prevent DCEC agents from carrying out their job, but rather advised them of the correct procedure to gain access to the office of the newspaper and conduct a search, or to arrest the journalists. He said he is now happy that Olsen and Selatlhwa have been properly cautioned after it was explained to them at DCEC offices that they had violated section 44 of the Corruption and Economic Crime Act (CECA) which prohibits divulging information on an ongoing investigation in relation to an investigation pertaining to Botswana Oil.
Salbany was detained and later charged for obstructing justice. He said he is happy that now they know what offences they are valleged to have committed. Asked if the journalists were aware of the ongoing DCEC investigations prior to publishing their story, he said they did not.
Veteran attorney Dick Bayford, who represents all but 'one or two'media houses said recent developments where media houses are raided by security agents has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. He said it would appear that the executive in this country has somewhat adopted a hostile attitude towards the media. "Perhaps this is as a result of comments that have frequently been made by the head of state in which he labelled the media as being indisciplined. The said comments by president seem to have permeated to the security agencies, particularly DCEC. IT seems that of late DCEC has totally abdicated its responsibility of combating high profile corruption," said Bayford adding that DCEC appears to have been reluctant in ensuring prosecution of certain well placed in government.
He said insteads the DCEC has made it its business to persecute the media, which has always played a commendable role in exposing corruption.He expressed concern that the case against The Botswana Gazette is the second of its nature, after the one against Sunday Standard instituted by DCEC in which the organisation seeks to gag the newspaperfrom publishing exposes relating to allegations of corruption against DIS Director General Isaac Kgosi. "It is high time DCEC perceive the media not as an adversay but as a partner in combating corruption. The attitude adopted by DCEC and its abdication of its statutory duties has created a situation whereby coruption committed by high profile personalities has become endemic in Botswana. I hope the media is not cowed in its efforts by these developments," said Bayford.
Bayford has been representing media houses for over 20 years. He is the former secretary general of Botswana Journalists Association (BOJA) and has also served as the president of the Press Club.
In a statement DCEC said the quartet was arrested following a story that the Gazette wrote insinuating that the DCEC is investigating a matter involving a deported Zambian national Jerry Chitube. They were brought in for questioning and released afternoon of 7th May 2015, read the statement.
Meanwhile the Southern African Editors’ Forum (SAEF) said it is alarmed at the military-type of coercion used by the Botswana government officials to intimidate media and condemns the arrests of the Botswana Gazette journalists and lawyer. "SAEF condemns these actions by the Botswana government security agents which are turning the country into a police state where arbitrary draconian measures are taken to silence the media. SAEF is dismayed at the constant erosion of democratic values in Botswana of late, and would like to call on the older statesmen of Botswana to urgently intervene. If indeed the Botswana Gazette committed any offence, the democratic principles of treating suspects should apply," read SAEF statement.
The SAEF follows a chorus of other local and international organisations that have condemned that harrasment of journalists by states agents. Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) have roundly condemned the harassment and detention.
BOFEPUSU President Johannes Tshukudu said the arrest borders on curtailing freedom of press by the current government. He called on journalists to be vigilant and report without fear or favour. Tshukudu said that BOFEPUSU will always lend its support to journalists. Deputy Secretary General Ketlhalefile Motshegwa said that they are worried that Botswana which used to be a beacon of hope for most of African countries is now moving towards autocratic tendencies. “We need vibrant civil societies to demonstrate against these kinds of atrocities by the current regime,” said Motshegwa.
Botswana Congress Party (BCP) also came hard of President Ian Khama’s administration, accusing it of being intolerant of the media. “The unleashing of the DCEC on the Gazette newspaper for reporting an alleged case of corruption involving millions of Pula is a clear testimony of the intolerance of the Khama administration,” read the statement penned by the Publicity Secretary Taolo Lucas.
According to BCP, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) led government views the media and journalists as enemies to be destroyed. They cautioned that the arrest of Gazette newspaper journalists is just a tip of an iceberg, “as the regime gets more exposed and its corrupt practices are revealed, it shall become even more ruthless.”
Botswana Movement for Democracy Youth League (BMDYL) Secretary General Tolerance Itumeleng also condemned the arrest, saying it is unfortunate that an anti-corruption body such as the DCEC would apprehend the three journalists in their course of duty which is anti-corruption. Responding to the detention of journalists, BDP Secretary General Mpho Balopi rebutted allegations that their party is behind the arrest. “People must know that DCEC is not a subcommittee of BDP and they don’t consult us on their investigations and as such we respect the independence of the judiciary and won’t interfere in their investigations,” said Balopi.
He said the BDP respects the media and regards them as an important estate on the political and social landscape and called on journalists to report without fear but within the confinement of ethics. Balopi said there is no way the BDP can try to suppress the media when they are the ones who gave them the platform to excel.