BOCRA’s double standards

SHARE   |   Monday, 15 February 2016   |   By Keitebe Kgosikebatho
BOCRA CEO, Thari Pheko BOCRA CEO, Thari Pheko

A research institute report has raised alarm against Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) for ignoring the most influential radio media – state radio stations – in regulating local electronic media. The regulator has come up with stringent regulations that are about to kick in on April 2016. But a recent study by Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) has revealed that the majority of the broadcasting sector remains unregulated, or at least remains outside of the ambit of BOCRA’s regulatory authority. “The most influential radio media, RB1 and RB2 and BTV are unregulated by BOCRA. Being thus unregulated implies a lack of capacity by BOCRA to exert regulatory discipline on the most influential media, possibly leading to lack of uniformity of standards,” read the customer satisfaction report by BIDPA. According to the BIDPA report that was presented to stakeholders on Wednesday, the unregulated sector also include all the SABC channels (1, 2, and 3), DSTv Botswana and Multi Choice South Africa, however, in the case of the SABC channels, geographical reach is largely restricted to villages and towns close to South Africa.

The report pointed out the exemption of state broadcasters from regulatory authority is likely to lead to unbalanced development of the sector and possibly expose some of the users to suboptimal services. In Botswana’s case, it has been consistently shown that state broadcasters are actually the most influential broadcasters, which implies that the regulatory authority is not applied at the most influential parts of the industry. Ahead of the 2014 General Elections BOCRA came under fire after some private broadcasters who accused the regulatory authority of trying to play big brother role in their operational affairs by calling for a review of its existing regulatory guidelines. One particular clause which was of concern is Section 29 of the Communications Regulations Act which prohibits local broadcasters from securing third party sponsorship from foreign governments without the approval of the regulatory body. The clause which appears in both the existing regulations and the draft regulations clearly states that, “A licensee shall not acquire any licence, right, privilege or concession from a foreign Government or enter into any agreement with such Government, without the approval of the Authority.”

This, however, has sparked suspicions from some that this might be government’s efforts to frustrate local broadcasters and tighten its grip over what the media does and associate with. “Sponsorship and support from foreign governments are the most efficient and lucrative - imagine if BOCRA was to disapprove of such for some reason known to them,” said one concerned broadcaster. Another clause that was pointed out as a cause for concern is one that particularly bars all media houses from being used by political parties. “BOCRA has done its spade work and realised that it is good practice across the world not to allow political influence in local broadcasting sector. BOCRA is part of the industry and has responsibility to ensure that all media houses operate within set rules and regulations. It has no reason to curtail the growth of the industry,” BOCRA Spokesperson was quoted by one international publication.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) is concerned.
“As the National Director of Botswana chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa, we have realised that there were some discrepancies that we felt needed to be dealt with. The first one was Article 27 which bars political party from broadcasting. The ruling party in Botswana has got control over all state broadcasters and barring other parties would be an infringement to freedom of expression,” Buyane Zongwane was quoted saying. Gabs FM programmes Manager Kenneth Moeng expressed concern at BOCRA’s sudden decision to review and implement the regulations last year in an interview with this publication. Moeng confirmed that most of the regulations have indeed been dormant and have never really been imposed on them as broadcasters. According to Moeng, even in the last general elections where GabzFM had partnered with the American Embassy to air live parliamentary debates no approval was sought from BOCRA. As a commercial radio station, Moeng said that the regulations will disadvantage them, seeing that they are now  going to be required to seek approval for a every little engagement they enter in to with foreign governments. “We have to write and seek approval for every little thing including spot announcements, adverts, endorsement and it cannot be good for business,” he said.

The past elections saw the ruling party’s popular vote shrinking to below 50% for the first time in the history of this country’s politics. The ruling party has since blamed this on private media (including broadcasters) who provided a platform for opposition party candidates to sell their campaigns to the voters. Opposition parties have over the years accused the ruling party of abusing the national broadcaster Botswana Television and Radio Botswana to advance its campaigns, the ruling party countered by accusing private press of forming an allegiance with opposition parties and giving BDP bad publicity. Thus regulations such as section 29 of the BOCRA regulations are seen by some as a way of containing the private press. A source within BOCRA said that although some stakeholders had initially reminded government that it was irregular for the regulations to apply to private broadcasters while excluding public broadcasters, their concerns were ignored. “BOCRA is only executing the wishes of the current government,” she said. Meanwhile, BIDPA has recommended that in order to improve the capacity of the regulator to further develop the sector, BOCRA must advocate for the development of a policy document for the communications sector. Such a document will set the performance targets of the sector as well as the governance arrangements and implementation setup, and how performance measurement is to be carried out.