Keorapetse – the face of Botswana’s cyber-bullying

01 Jul 2019

BY MPHO KUHLMANN

To Selibe Phikwe West Member of Parliament and Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) Chief Whip Dithapelo Koorapetse and scores of trolls who share his morbid sense of humour, former journalist, Tirelo Ditshipi is nothing but the butt of an amusing black joke.

To hundreds of Batswana who are sick and tired of the toxic masculinity and harassment that plaque the internet, Ditshipi has become the face of everyday abuse that women and minorities face on social media - literally. Her face last week wound up on hundreds of smart phones and facebook pages as a punch line to the MP’s sexist dark humour.

The mother of three is still reeling from the shock and pain of the harrowing experience: “The whole incident affected me badly. When I finally took it all in I just broke down. I’m hurt and embarrassed and every time someone brings it up, it gets worse all over again. I have a reputation to uphold professionally and personally as a mother.”

Ditshipi was caught up in a bitter social media tiff  between The Patriot on Sunday’s journalist Philemon Mmeso and the Selibe Phikwe West MP.

What seemed like a normal boys back and forth quickly turned nasty when the Member of Parliament threw Ditshipi who is Mmeso’s spouse in the mix.

He posted her pictures and maligned her with degrading, derogatory and hurtful comments in an attempt to get back at Mmeso.

Challenged to condemn their Chief Whip, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) last week however seemed to brush off Ditshipi as merely collateral damage in the testosterone charged tussle.

UDC deputy President Dumelang Saleshando told a press conference that the party will not intervene in the issue because they feel when two strapping young men decide to pit their strengths; they should be given space to do so.

A number of organisations have also weighed in on the debate. Gender Links Country Manager, Gomolemo Rrasesigo told the Sunday Standard that, “It is utterly disappointing to see how women in the country are still being disrespected and degraded. Seeing a Member of Parliament – a leader say all those negative and disgusting things about a woman who could quite potentially be his voter is disheartening. I believe that no matter how heated things get it doesn’t have to get to a level which it did. It was uncalled for and downright embarrassing and wrong. It goes to show how women are still regarded as nothing but play things. People tend to use social media wrongly and are setting really bad examples, for someone in a leadership position you would expect better. I not only speak as a gender activist but as a human being that we really need to respect each other.”

Gender Links has been at the forefront of the campaign against cyber-bullying of women in Botswana. The organisation was part of the 49th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Africa Region Conference in Gaborone which focused on cyber bullying, and how it impedes the rights and privileges of female members of parliament. The meeting decried that women in leadership positions specifically in politics, including those aspiring to be politicians have been unduly targeted by online violence and have experienced the wrath of online abuse, threats and bullying. Compared to that of men, female online harassment is considered to be more racial, religious and sexual in nature.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has also issued a press statement condemning the opposition chief whip for “abusing the former senior sports female journalist.”

The IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger expressed disappointment at the situation and how it is a clear cut case of cyber bullying. “The attack on the female journalist is tantamount to cyber bullying and trolling. These acts of intimidation and harassment against female journalists are distasteful, malicious and unacceptable. We must stop gender based violence and condemn public and personal attacks on journalists. We reiterate our calls on all government and political leaders to respect journalist’s work. There will be no free and fair elections if journalists’ work under fear and in unsafe conditions.”

The IFJ also condemned the UDC parliamentarian for trying to incite a boycott against the Sunday Standard and the Patriot on Sunday.

“Freedom of the press in Botswana has become increasingly threatened in recent weeks. In the run up to the next general elections, some political leaders have increased their attacks on individual journalists and media outlets even calling for the closure of two of them, The Sunday Standard and The Patriot. In a statement, BOMAWU denounced that “attacks on journalists took another twist this week when a female journalist was ridiculed and her pictures were posted on social media. This has caused panic among female journalists who are now afraid to do their work freely as they fear being insulted and ridiculed”

Trolling and cyber bullying have been part of the internet culture since its inception – a side effect of anonymity and unfettered free expression. Once restricted to chartrooms, social media has brought it into the mainstream. A recent study by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) states: “Digital spaces can be empowering places of opinion-formation, debate and mobilisation. However, cyberbullying restricts the opportunities offered by digitalisation. Young people, especially women are put off from taking part in political discussions or online debates. All of society is missing out when young women are not engaged because we are losing their potential to get involved in politics and become future leaders,” said Virginija Langbakk, EIGE’s Director. 

Online harassment happens more often to young women, with 9 % declaring to be a victim, compared with 6 % of young men. After witnessing or experiencing online hate speech or abuse, one young woman out of two (51 %) and 42 % of young men hesitate to engage in social media debates.

“The internet needs to be a safe place to enable young people to express their opinions. Cyber bullying or abuse has to be prevented if we want to ensure the full online participation of youth, especially young women, whose voices are less heard,“

Whether the Ditshipi cyber bullying case will become another # We shall not forget moment remains uncertain, but it has opened a long-overdue debate about the culture of toxic masculinity and harassment in Botswana politics in the run up to the 2019 General elections.