A report by African Media Barometer (AMB) released recently details how Batswana live in fear of intelligence agents of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS).
The report states that a vast network of security operatives is making it virtually impossible for journalists, and citizens at large to freely express themselves in the country.
Quoting one of the panellists, the report notes that: “We are a small nation, so there is a relative or a cousin or friend who works for one institution or another. This DISS ghost haunts all of us. Even the ordinary person will not talk unless phones are switched off. It’s become a general thing where even big guys will only talk if you switch off your phone, put it away and go a certain distance away. Even judges will tell you they constantly change numbers.”
The report observed that the government is said to have ears and eyes across the country and one never really knows whether or not the next person is a spy.
“This is because the consequences for publicly expressing dissenting views ÔÇô or indeed what authorities interpret as dissenting views ÔÇô can be harsh and severe, as one citizen found out in the aftermath of commentary made on President Ian Khama’s accident involving a cheetah,” states the report.
In 2014 the Mo Ibrahim report ranked Botswana eighth on the category of participation and human rights in which freedom of expression is one of the indicators. ┬á
The report says Botswana has consistently ranked highly on global democracy indices. It further notes that stability and ability to hold periodic free and fair elections that are widely endorsed, the country presents the model picture for the continent, of a democracy at work.
However, the report says, if democracy depends on a free, diverse, plural and independent media, then Botswana is no model, and dark clouds hang over the industry and country.
“Growing involvement and influence of government intelligence agencies, especially the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS), in various aspects of media in Botswana ÔÇô online and offline ÔÇô is cause for concern,” says the report.
According to the report, alongside South Africa, Botswana is one of the countries known in recent times to have requested user data from global technology company, Facebook.
“Journalists and other media practitioners have also reported suspected phone tapping and other communication surveillance, courtesy of the DIS. Newsrooms have been turned from being bastions of freedom of expression to closed and tension-filled spaces dominated by fear and suspicion of infiltration,” states the report.
This comes as no surprise though, the report says, noting that new communication technology tools, collectively branded new media, have been hailed as having a positive impact on the way journalists conduct their work, gathering and disseminating information in ways previously impossible.
On editorial independence, the report says direct control by the Office of the President of State-run media outlets ÔÇô especially broadcast mediaÔÇô means that this office oversees all production processes and that these media routinely fail to conduct one of their sacred duties ÔÇô holding power to account.
“Editorial independence in both State and private media is, based on this report, seen to be irregular at best and compromised at worst,” the report reads in part.
The arrangement explains, the report says, to a higher degree, the overwhelming focus in coverage by State-run media on the presidency.
“Private media appear to enjoy some form of independence from State authorities, except when the DISS and powerful State enterprises are involved. Threats to editorial independence emanate from corporate advertisers, whose advertising spend often means the difference between sustainability and ceasing operations,” says the report.
As a result, self-censorship seems to be the norm in most private media newsrooms.
“Where there is an exception, it often means that the editor or other higher management personnel spike a journalist’s story that can prove damaging to an advertiser. Government, on the other hand has usually responded to critical private media by withholding advertising,” the report says.
Weak media – civil society relations have meant that these issues are either not being articulated enough to warrant substantive action, or tactical and strategic alliances on particular advocacy points and such are difficult to identify, strengthen and build, the report says.
Thus, challenges continue to persist, affecting the level to which advocacy on media freedom, freedom of expression and welfare of journalists can be pitched.
“A free, diverse, plural and independent Media is a prerequisite for democracy if Botswana is to successfully consolidate its democratisation process,” the report says.
Commenting on the report, MISA Botswana Chairperson Modise Maphanyane summed up the findings by saying of the four categories of the research (Freedom of expression; Media landscape; Broadcasting regulation and Levels of professional standards) the highest grading has been sixty percent. “This leaves us with no cause for celebration unless one’s aim is too low”, Maphanyane is quoted as saying.
┬áKagiso Sekokonyane of the Editors’ Forum who also participated in the survey said AMB is a tool that measures media environment in a country using local resources. “Media and civil society meet to discuss the media situation in Botswana,” he said.