Saturday, December 9, 2023

A law of panic, not purpose

Scores of Batswana were hoping that if nothing else, the debate on the Mass Media Bill would, at least, heal the relationship between the fourth estate and executive.

This was understandable considering that the debate brought home the extent to which the relationship between the two arms of the state has soured from separation of powers to adversarial.
However, an opportunity to heal the rift was lost when the executive decided to railroad the bill through parliament. Although the executive comes across as the worst of two devils, none of the two can claim to have debated the bill from the side of angels.

There was more prejudice and labeling than constructive debate between the two parties. The Executive labeled the media as “irresponsible.” The natural progression from the label was to push a bill that would ensure that the media acts responsibly. This view was informed more by a number of stories run over the years which ministers and some civil servants believed were either ill researched, malicious or just down right irresponsible and less by an understanding of the difficulties under which the media operates. The position was informed more by vendetta than empathy.

These sentiments, which have been simmering for sometime, have been reinforced over a number of years. It was unlikely that they would be changed by a few meetings between media representatives and government representatives. The perception, though wrong, was reasonable considering how much some have fallen victims to stories that were poorly researched.

The media, on the other hand, labeled the executive as tyrannical and dictatorial. This also was not a baseless view. It was borne out of years of iron fist decision that the executive took against the media. i.e. the decision to withdraw advertising from the Guardian and to ban the Botswana Gazette from circulating at the BDF barracks. The media may have been wrong to label the executive as authoritarian but this view had a basis in the history of how government has always treated the media, although the media never took time to inform itself on why the strong sentiment against them.

The whole purpose of the consultation process was thus lost because both government and the media were locked in their positions which, to a large extent, were based more on prejudice than understanding of other party’s view post. Both parties came up with labels which they used to define their arguments. We were all trapped in our labels and thus failed to understand each others’ fears and concerns.

The tragedy, however, is that both the media and the executive were looking for the same thing. The media is always striving to be responsible. No media house would go out of its way to act irresponsibly. After all, the biggest asset of any media house is credibility. The government on the other hand also said they wanted to create a responsible media. The difference, however, was in the divergent routes taken by the two parties. Government wanted the mass media bill. The media wanted the current press council to be strengthened. Neither the media nor government was wrong. And neither the media nor the government was right. Right presumes a guarantee that the strategy being pursued would bring about desired results. Neither government nor the media can claim that their strategy would bring about a responsible media and the other’s strategy would fail.

Had both the media and government tried to understand each other’s views, the debate would have been saved from the prejudices that poisoned it. After all, prejudice is more about lack of understanding than hate. Had the media and the executive risen above labels and not used them as scaffoldings on which to hang their arguments, the debate would not have been boxed in by labels and would have addressed the real issues.

At the end, both the media and government missed an opportunity to come up with a strategy that would please everyone and help normalize relations and understand each other. We hope government will see the wisdom in reversing the bill and consulting to come up with a solution that would not only make sense to all interested parties, but would also heal the chasm between the two adversarial arms of the state. Because what we have now is a law of panic, not purpose.


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