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Check your facts. Read your story aloud. Pass it to a fellow colleague for feedback. If you ever sat in a journalism class, these instructions are too familiar. Or if you got introduced to report writing in your foundational English classes, there is no how you would not be taught to look out for these cardinal rules.
The by-line must give the writer a moment of pride to publish. Serious writers don’t publish stories with their by-line unless the writing truthfully resonates with who the original conceiver of the narrative is. But that is not the end of the writing exercise. In the business of publishing, there is a chain of gatekeepers. From the original writer, the story is read by the copy editor whose job is to align the headline with the story and ensure brevity without taking away from the essence of the intended purpose by the author – after all, the story will carry his/her name. They call it tightening the story. The proof-reader is the last person to interact with the copy before it goes to the press. His/her job is to ensure flawless flow of the narrative. It is more than crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. Serious publications use English majors as proof-readers as it ought to be people with a natural flair of the language used by the publication. They make sure punctuation is done correctly and consistently. The reader of this paper should be assisted that there is a lot of work going on in the newsrooms before readers can hold in their hands a copy and smell its freshness.
Hence, stories that do not follow the processes described above risk to be littered with inaccuracies, nauseating grammar and unclear themes as well as disjointed points that the reader is left wondering how it even got published. In my published article in the Sunday Standard in December 2016 titled ‘Journalism and Creative Writing are two forms too different’, I shared with fellow news reporters the need to stick to the principle of truth-telling without embellishing anything, or seeming to fuse opinion or bias in their news and feature articles. Opinion and commentary pages allow for that. Critics, analysts and reviewers in other sections of the newspapers enjoy this latitude to share their thoughts, feelings and experience on a topical issue. A perfect example is the published analysis in the Mmegi of Friday the 09th November 2018 on page 20, where I unbundle the message contained in the State of the Nation Address by His Excellency the President Dr Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi. While I bring my expertise as someone grounded in the use of English as a medium of instruction to interpret the meanings of the speech under discussion, my interpretation cannot remain the only gospel. But a news story or a feature article that is explaining the ‘behind the news’ should be loaded with facts (figures, names and empirical evidence) where necessary and the presentation of the narrative should be based on telling it as it happened (truth) without fear or favour. This handling of facts in a news story allows the reader or consumers of news items to make their own conclusions without feeling pressured to agree or disagree with the writer.
There has been an avalanche of [mis]reporting in the previous months since 01 April 2018 to project the feud between the current President and his predecessor; Lieutenant General Kgosikgolo Ian Khama. The mainstream media have intentionally chosen to align with either of the leaders but their motivation remains suspect in the eyes of the reading public. Week-in-and-week-out, newspapers churn out chunks of information that we digest much to our chagrin because it is not helpful in how they as the media are supposed to be playing their role as agenda-setters for public discourse, or in their other principal role of nation-building. Our reporters have callously and recklessly abdicated their onerous duty to exercise personal responsibility to handle information and package it in the manner that can benefit all of us. At this juncture, as one of them in as far living by the pen between 1994 and 2003 as a fulltime journalist before my next life, the present crop of our news scribes need to be nudged that there is only one Botswana. If they set Botswana ablaze – not only a particular section of the society will be ruined, but all of us. I pick this week’s papers and their stories to show why handling of facts is of the greatest importance in building a nation.
The Voice of 09th November 2018 carries a story headlined; “On the Chopping Block” whose gist is that President Masisi will strike any minute to kick out Minister Tshekedi Khama from his portfolio because of sour relations. A curious reader in me when seeing a headline like that wants to know the reasons for such a drastic action. But if the supporting evidence to fire TK (as we refer to him) is nothing more than what the story spells out – I am shocked and terrified. While the writer gives us the impression that there is information or a leaked evidence from the Office of the President, he dismally fails to cover enough bases to show us something substantial. Instead, the story wanders up and about to pick this and that to piece together a tale that either could pre-empt the President’s decision if he has valid reasons to do so, or to cause TK to suffer from paranoia of an imminent plot to axe him. Such reporting is unhelpful.
Then the Mmegi front-page of the same date portrays the President as promoting tribalistic tendencies of appointing southerners to strategic positions in his administration to the detriment of the northerners (I am from Maun). The artistic creativity of the front-page depicts Masisi at the centre and surrounded by those whom he had brought closer to his inner circle, and all of them originate from the southern part of Botswana. Historically, the regional idiosyncrasies of this country have divided the north and south by the Dibete cordon fence and not the geographical bearings of latitude and longitude as one may tend to reason. In the main, south is classified as the Tswana-speaking ethnicities that place the letter ‘l’ after the consonant ‘t’ where it is appropriate to do so. The headline screams; “Masisi appointments raise eyebrows” and immediately, the reader is alert to the divisions that have stood the test of time; north/south.
“A disturbing trend is emerging and that is, more and more people south of the Dibete cordon fence are getting the nod to assume critical positions in and when available,” reads the third paragraph of the main story on page 02 whose sub-heading is "Masisi’s appointments a southern affair". Like the story cited in The Voice – this one too, is by a seasoned scribe with whom I was privileged to serve the noble profession many years ago. These stories when written by greenhorns or cub-reporters as they are called in journalism, may find some excuse, though they remain an annoyance as they taint the profession. To back up its theme, the story goes on to list those persons appointed under the new administration and they include southerners such as: Deputy Permanent Secretary to the President – Elias Magosi, Director General Peter Magosi, Head of Government Communications – John Dipowe, Chief Justice Terrence Rannowane, University of Botswana Chancellor – Linah Mhohlo, University of Botswana Vice Chancellor Professor David Norris, Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany – Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba and the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom – Rev Dr John Seakgosing, to name a few,” states the fourth paragraph of the story.
It is obvious that the writer did not bother to check basic facts. He got caught up in the frenzy of maligning the President by ‘hook or crook’ as the expression goes, and neglected his basic duty to handle information with magnanimity, truthfulness as with dexterity. Have you ever wondered how journalists who stoop this low end up losing respect in the eyes of the reading public? Professor Norris was appointed to the highest seat at the University of Botswana in 2017. For the whole of 2017 the president was Ian Khama. Masisi only came on April 1, 2018. A cursory search on Google would have avoided this embarrassment for the scribe whose name appears above the article, whose intention is to give him credit and pride.
Reporting in The Patriot on Sunday on 20th November 2017 under the headline; ‘Norris takes charge at UB’, the article makes it obvious that the appointment was made by Khama in his role as the State President and Chairman of cabinet. It is now evident how the main news items appearing in many national newspapers last month, alleged that the President possessed bogus academic credentials because Professor Norris dished out the degree on a silver platter since the two originate from Moshupa.
In the same breadth, the article further illustrates why southerners should not be picked for top-notch jobs in the government because the President is a southerner already. Quoting some faceless people who are unrelenting in their pursuit of tribalistic bigotry under the guise of seeking a balance between the north and south, the scribe shows that the new appointments add on to the already long list of southerners who are in strategic positions, including the commissioner of police, director general of the graft busting agency, the secretary for the electoral commission, the army commander, the attorney general and director of public prosecutions. Curiously but intentionally, the scribe omits to mention that these appointments were made by Khama and that while they originate from the south, it is a widely known secret that these are the former president’s trusted allies, and their appointments were seen in similar vein at the time to surround himself with people who could not betray his trust.
Strikingly no mention is made of other powerful positions held by people from the north of Dibete cordon fence. The Permanent Secretary to the President who is also cabinet secretary is an example.
This is a very powerful position from where other appointment are made.
If any credence can be given to the story – it should be the interview with the University of Botswana political scientist Adam Mfundisi who makes his observations. Still, these are perceptions as he goes on record that there is no evidence to back them up.
“There have been numerous appointments made by the President of the Republic of Botswana in pursuance of his Executive powers as per Section 47 of the Botswana Constitution. Most appointments have raised eyebrows due to perceived bias toward the cadres from the southern part of the country,” the article quotes Mfundisi.
The article makes a desperate attempt to persuade the readers that the President of the ruling party that has a strong base in the north and should thus tread carefully not to upset the northerners with appointments that may seem biased against them. Mfundisi opines that a disregard to this reality has the potential to destabilize the country. Effectively, a national newspaper carrying such an article in its prominent pages and suggesting a tribal warfare or civil strife mirrors absolute irresponsibility and total abdication of duty to the nation that has stayed peaceful and peaceable over the decades of our nationhood. Mfundisi pushes his argument that the government’s spokesperson should explain how southerners have been picked for such positions. Coming from an academic with claim to expertise in public service this is outrageous to say the least! Since when did former presidents account to us for their appointments of senior government officials, even when we knew those were not merit-based? Why are such demands only now being made on Masisi? This blatant disrespect for the Office of the Presidency because suddenly people can express their opinions without fear, should not take the better of us. Mfundisi in his outbursts, does not give a tiny fraction of the under-qualifications of these individuals other than the fact that their predestined origins placed them in the southern part of Botswana!
Take professor Norris for example who heads the university where Mfundisi teaches! Is there any truth to a suggestion that Norris is not qualified. Our information is that Professor Norris was head-hunted from BIUST where he was a deputy vice chancellor. He had not applied for the job he is doing at University of Botswana. He was only brought in after applicants failed to make the cut.
Mfundisi is being driven by the scribe of the article whose agenda is clear from the story that has made the front-page to discredit the President for being tribalist in his approach to public affairs. The scribe makes desperate efforts to push this narrative that promotes regionalism. It is almost as though the scribe seeks to make a case for the northerners to be included in the strategic positions even if we may not fit the bill. Recently president appointed Gobe Pitso as Botswana’s High Commissioner to Mozambique. Pitso is a capable, young carreer civil servant and diplomat. He is from the north. Yet no mention is made of him by the writer.
Page 03 has a shorter version of the main story discussed already, and carries the front-page headline. It basically repeats the major story by listing out all the appointments under dispute and shows that Masisi prefers technocrats from his home village of Moshupa, Thamaga and Kanye. To back up this fallacious conjecture – the story gives the reader a peep into these appointments by identifying each officer with his or her place of origin. Of great interest in this particular story is the paragraph that reads:
“Masisi also promoted Judge Terrence Rannowane from Thamaga as the Chief Justice when precedence dictated that a senior member of the judiciary should succeed retired Chief Justice Maruping Dibotelo. Senior Private Secretary to the President Berzac Maphakwane is from Thamaga as well as the government spokesperson, John Dipowe.”
This is devoid of truth as Maphakwane is from Tlhalogang (near Borolong/Chadibe) and has no links whatsoever with the south, let alone the village of Thamaga. Maphakwane traces his orgins not from Thamaga but from Shoshong, Serowe and Tonota. Apart from setting the public agenda, great journalism provides accurate information that the readers can pick lessons on facts to use for their general knowledge. Teachers from primary all the way to university use newspapers to teach their students current affairs, as well as learn alongside their pupils on the constant changes that are taking place in their society. It cannot be emphasized enough that when newspapers publish half-baked stories, not only are they doing a disservice to their readership, but they earn negative labelling such as ‘liars’. As a journalist, I don’t want to be ashamed to stick my head out and say I am a journalist. I look back and I am proud that I did not sell my soul to the devil as to be reckless in reporting the truth and handling facts with utmost care and diligence. There’ll never be a moment I will sell my soul to the devil as a writer.
Then on Saturday we were treated to another dog whistle; “Magosi brothers engage Khama,” shouted a headline on the Weekend Post of 10-16 November, 2018. The story talks about Peter Magosi who heads DIS and Elias Magosi the Deputy PSP ttrying to bring peace between Masisi and Ian. The two were appointed to respective positions by Masisi. But just how they are sold to the public as brothers would be a shock to the two men’s respective parents and relatives. Yet another serious journalistic transgression.
In closing, the nation is watching as news media have embraced the mercenary assignment of stoking up the fires of tribalism and division in the place of unity. Buckle up; we will all seek asylum!
*Enole is a journalist and public commentator