Should journalists also have to declare their assets?

15 Jul 2019

With “almost everybody” on the list of people whom an upcoming law requires to declare their assets and liabilities, some voices are questioning the exclusion of private-sector journalists.

One is that of Dr. Boago Modiitsane, an optometrist who is the Managing Director of Eyecare Optometrists and immediate past Chairperson of the Botswana Health Professionals Council. Modiitsane’s argument is that journalists wield a lot of power and can also be tempted to use it corruptly. He offers a quite realistic scenario of a journalist being bribed with lot of money to kill a damaging story – something that the grapevine credibly alleges to have happened on numerous instances. In backing up his argument, he points to Sri Lanka which, in 1988, introduced asset disclosure requirements for journalists.

However, the counter-argument is that the Sri Lankan example is an unnecessary departure from the international norm and was solely motivated by the malice of politicians who wanted to get even with people who are always a permanent thorn in their side. To that Modiitsane says that journalists shouldn’t be exempted from what almost everybody else in society is being subjected to.

“You have a section of society that is not regulated any how being exempted from a law that covers almost everybody,” says Modiitsane, adding that subjecting journalists to scrutiny would yield the additional benefit of helping protect the integrity of their profession. “We need a society that is ethical and can only have one if everybody is put to the same test.”

His other point is that the exemption of journalists from the law could compromise them even further: the criminally creative may be motivated to hide assets under their names. The broader elaboration of this point is that even cattle hands (badisa) might be pressed into service in such a nefarious manner. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to conceive of a scenario in which a rich farmer fraudulently distributes his own assets amongbadisa in order to stay just below the declaration threshold.

On the other hand, the Managing Editor of The Patriot on Sunday, Mpho Dibeela, doesn’t think that it would be a good idea to introduce asset disclosure requirements for journalists because the media functions best when it is self-regulating. A related point he makes is that adequate ethical guardrails (in the form of in-house editorial charters, the Press Council’s Code of Ethics and international best practices of the profession) have been erected around the Fourth Estate. While he makes a more fundamental point that “journalists don’t pursue wealth, only publishers do”, he acknowledges that Botswana has not been spared the scourge of “brown-envelope journalism.” Sometimes called chequebook journalism, the latter refers to a practice whereby monetary inducement is given to journalists to make them write a positive story or kill a negative story. Dibeela’s contention is that the aforementioned guardrails should be activated to deal with such unethical conduct.

“Of course there is always room for improvement but the media should always be self-regulating,” he says.

However, the issue is trickier than that because the Assets and Liabilities Declaration Bill that the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Nonofo Molefi, will present to parliament says that “all public officers” will be required to declare their assets and liabilities. That includes journalists who work for the Department of Information Services. While they would be required to declare their assets and liabilities, their counterparts in the private sector wouldn’t be. On this point, Dibeela says as long been advocated, government journalists should equally be freed of extreme control by government so that they could also be independent and serve all taxpayers equally.

“That way they will be obliged to adhere to the Press Council’s Code of Ethics and equally self-regulate,” he adds. “Understandably and regrettably, they have to adhere to conditions of service stipulated in the Public Service Act because they are civil servants.”

All in all, Dibeela welcomes any law – including that on the declaration of assets and liabilities - that promotes transparency and discourages tendencies that lead to corruption, nepotism and maladministration.

A less remarked upon item on the proposed declaree list is a position that will particularly energise the Botswana Patriotic Front. One of the really frustrating things for journalists was that from 1998 to 2018, gaining access to and perusing files of companies that belong to the Khama family, especially Seleka Springs which made an awful lot of money from lucrative army tenders, was impossible. At this time the Commander was future president Ian Khama. Those days may be gone forever and the BPF, which basically exists to serve Khama’s personal interests, will be fighting tooth and nail when the Bill reaches the parliament’s floor.

Section 3 of the Bill puts the position of “former president” on a long list of people that the proposed law will apply to. Former presidents will declare their assets and liabilities to the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration. As those on the list, former presidents will be required to declare any property whether movable or immovable, corporeal or incorporeal that includes money, rights, privileges, claims and securities “and any interest in such property and all proceeds thereof as well as: any currency, whether or not the currency is legal tender in Botswana, and any bill, security bond, negotiable instrument or any instrument capable of being negotiated, which is payable to the bearer, or endorsed payable to bearer, whether expressed in Botswana currency or otherwise; any balance held in Botswana currency or in any other currency in accounts with any bank which carries on business in Botswana or elsewhere; any balance held in any currency with a bank outside Botswana; vehicles, ships, aircraft, boats, works of art, jewelry, precious metal or any other item of value; any right or interest in property; funds or other assets including all property or any interest, dividends or income on or value accruing or generated by such funds or assets; a direct or indirect interest in company, business or undertaking; and livestock.”

A person subject to the proposed law has a direct interest in a company, business or undertaking if such a person is a director, trustee or holds a position in, is an employee of, is a shareholder in, gives services for remuneration for reward to, will or may derive a financial or material benefit from, is a beneficial owner of, the company, business or undertaking. The Bill further says that a person has a direct interest in a company, business or undertaking if an immediate member of the person has a direct interest in has a direct in, or is the beneficial owner of the company, business or undertaking. “Immediate member of the family” means the spouse, son, daughter, sibling or parent of a person subjected to this law. A “beneficial owner” means any person who directly or indirectly, through any contract, arrangement, understanding, relationship or otherwise, has a voting power or the power to direct the voting over the assets of a company, business or undertaking and the power to dispose of or direct the disposition of the assets of the company, business or undertaking. Declarees will specify any property sold, transferred or donated in any form or manner including income or benefits from any bank account, partnership, society, company or trust.