New broadcasting law takes edge off BDP

12 Aug 2018

The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) may be the biggest loser under the new broadcasting law which seeks to level the political playing field and insulate Botswana elections from meddling by foreign powers. The Botswana Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) has tightened broadcasting laws and will for the first time regulate state media coverage of election campaigns in a move that is expected to reverse the unfair coverage enjoyed by the BDP and give the opposition a fair fighting chance.

The new Act came into effect following a study by Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) which found that a huge swathe 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,” the customer satisfaction report by BIDPA found.

The new Act which seeks to ensure a free and fair election states that, “the Authority shall, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, develop a code of conduct for broadcasting during an election period.”

The amended Act and guidelines also aim to restrict political parties from advertising news feeds during elections, restrict the use of foreign news feeds as well as the involvement of foreign governments in election campaigns.

The Act states that licensed broadcaster shall not be obliged to broadcast a party-political notice.  A licensee shall not broadcast a party-political notice exceeding three minutes for every 60 minutes of a programme.

A broadcaster shall clearly distinguish a party-political notice from any other programme that the licensee airs such that it is clearly identified as a party-political notice.

“A licensee shall broadcast a party-political notice outside an election period.  A licensee shall not broadcast any political notice immediately before or after item or current affairs programme. A party political notice shall not include any political-party manifesto content, party slogan or campaign message,” the Act states.

According to the Act, licensed broadcaster shall during an election period and in accordance with the code of conduct air contesting party-political broadcasts and afford all contesting political parties similar opportunities when airing party-political broadcast.

If during election period the programming of any licensee extends to the elections, political parties and issues related to the political parties, the licensee shall provide reasonable opportunity for discussions of conflicting views and treat all political parties equitably.

“If, within two days before poling day, licensee intends to broadcast a programme in which a political party is criticised, the broadcaster shall give the political party a reasonable opportunity to reply to the criticism in the same programme or as soon as is reasonably practicable to do so before poling day,” states the Act.

“A licensee shall not carry out an external broadcast feed without a special event broadcasting licence.  A licensee shall apply in writing to the Authority to carry out an external broadcast feed,” the amended Act states.  

On restrictions in dealing with foreign governments, section 30 of the Amended Act states that “licensee shall not acquire any license, right, privilege or concession from a foreign government, or other enter into any agreement with a foreign government, without the approval of the Authority.”

Observers say this was a response to private radio station Gabz FM’s decision to partner with the American Embassy to air live parliamentary debates. At the time no approval was sought from BOCRA. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) boycotted the programme and only opposition parties participated. For the first time in history BDP’s popular vote declined to below 50%.

The party blamed their poor election results on Gabz Fm and meddling by the American government. The concern over meddling in elections by foreign powers has become a hotly debated issue following allegations that the Russian government influenced the last US elections.

Dov Levin, an academic from the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, has calculated the vast scale of election interventions by both the US and Russia.

According to his research, there were 117 “partisan electoral interventions” between 1946 and 2000. That’s around one of every nine competitive elections held since Second World War.

The majority of these – almost 70 per cent – were cases of US interference. And these are not all from the Cold War era; 21 such interventions took place between 1990 and 2000, of which 18 were by the US. “60 different independent countries have been the targets of such interventions,” Levin’s writes. “The targets came from a large variety of sizes and populations, ranging from small states such as Iceland and Grenada to major powers such as West Germany, India, and Brazil.” It’s important to note that these cases vary greatly – some simply involved steps to publicly support one candidate and undermine another.

But almost two thirds of interventions were done in secret, with voters having no idea that foreign powers were actively trying to influence the results.

Levin told FactCheck he was surprised by how common US election interference was. “Such interventions can frequently have significant effects on election results in the intervened country, increasing the vote share of the assisted side by 3% on average – enough to determine the identity of the winner in many cases.”