Last year’s arrest and detention of Sunday Standard’s editor, Outsa Mokone, has caused Botswana’s press-freedom ranking by a prestigious international research institute to drop by three points. Tied to Mokone’s ordeal was the hounding out of the country of reporter Edgar Tsimane who fled to South Africa at the height of this saga.
“Botswana’s score declined from 41 to 44 due to the government’s use of the sedition law to charge an editor and journalist following publication of an article about the president. The incident entailed the jailing of the editor for one night; the journalist has subsequently sought asylum in South Africa. The year also featured increased extralegal harassment of journalists by the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS), and a spate of physical attacks on media practitioners by strikers, government employees, and private citizens,” says Freedom House in its 2015 Freedom in the Worldreport.
Botswana is cited among four “traditionally strong performers” in Southern Africa (the others are Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa) which experienced “unusually turbulent years.” “Increased efforts by governments to limit reporting on sensitive issues, and arrests of and violence against journalists, contributed to declines in their press freedom scores,” the report says with regard to the four countries. Mokone and Tsimane found themselves in hot water following the publication of a story that alleged that President Ian Khama had been at the wheel of a car that was involved in a night-time road accident. Both editor and reporter were charged with sedition, this development marking the second time in the country’s history that sedition law had been invoked. At this time however, Tsimane had fled to South Africa where he applied for and was granted political asylum. (That the South African government believed his story is significant.)
Mokone was picked up by security agents and detained for one night. The state also wanted to confiscate a printing press owned by a sister company to the one that publishes Sunday Standard on the mistaken belief that the press had been used to print the offending article. The sedition law provides for this sort of confiscation. There has been very little headway in the matter because through his lawyers, Mokone has challenged the constitutionality of sedition law which has been scrapped off in the country of its origin (the United Kingdom) for being incompatible with democratic practice. There is a possibility that Botswana’s ranking will drop further.
Issues covered by Freedom House’s methodology include “economic pressures on media outlets and their means of distribution.” The government, which is the largest supplier of services and products in the country, has ratcheted up its war against the private press by instituting an advertising ban that targets media houses that are critical of it. Freedom House, which former United States president, Bill Clinton, has described as “a voice for tolerance for human dignity”, is a US-based NGOthat conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. Its annual Freedom in the World report assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties.