As parliament knuckles down to the hard work of repealing the draconian Media Practitioners Act, the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) has warned MPs that it will be monitoring proceedings with a view to identifying (and punishing) non-progressive voices.
“Our position is that the current Act must be repealed and since that is the responsibility of parliament, we call upon all Members of Parliament to exercise their duty to vote for the repeal of the Act,’ says BOFEPUSU’s Deputy Secretary General, Ketlhalefile Motshegwa. “We will assess the process to see who speaks and votes against the repealing of the Act because those are enemies of free media and democracy.”
The Media Practitioners Act was passed by Parliament in December 2008, some nine months after General Ian Khama succeeded Festus Mogae as president. Going back to 1997 (when Sir Ketumile Masire was president) the government had always sought to control the media but Khama, whose anti-press freedom streak began to show when he was still army commander, didn’t dither when he became president. However, the Act’s implementation proved an uphill struggle right up to the minute that Khama left office.
Most problematic about the Act is its “the-Minister-shall” provisions, which have the effect of recreating a private media that would effectively be run from a government office. It is no secret what sort of coverage governments want globally and the Act gave the Minister as much power as to turn private media into a veritable version of state media. In order to be implemented, the Act required the participation of journalists themselves as well as lawyers but neither party was willing to participate in the implementation of the Act.
Section 15 of the Act establishes an Appeals Committee (appointed by the Minister) which has to be chaired by “a legal practitioner, admitted to practice in the courts of Botswana and recommended by the Law Society of Botswana.” The Society, which regulates legal practitioners, made a resolution to not nominate a member to chair the Appeals Committee. Some five months after the law was passed, Botswana publishers also registered a statutory notice with the Attorney General and the Ministry of Communications Science and Technology (as it then was), challenging the law and asking the courts to declare the Act as invalid. One part of the notice challenged clauses of registration and accreditation of journalists, the enforced right to reply, as well as the Act’s implications on the constitution of the country and its international commitments. With as much power as the Act vests in the government, the registration and accreditation basically divests editors of absolute power to staff newsrooms with journalists of their choice and the right-of-reply provision would have the effect of turning the front page into an apology/correction/rebuttal page. Newspapers are commercial ventures and the latter doesn’t make commercial sense – there are also international industry standards for packaging apologies, corrections and rebuttals.
Beginning in 2013, BOFEPUSU expanded its activism to party politics. Two years prior, it had called a national strike and vowed to punish MPs who hadn’t supported the strike in the upcoming 2014 general election. There is belief that such intent is the reason some cabinet ministers lost in both the primary elections and the general election. At the time, BOFEPUSU’s Labour Secretary, Johnson Motshwarakgole, told Sunday Standard that they would dictate to their more than 90 000 members which party or political coalition to support during the 2014 general election. That is the context in which “We will assess the process to see who speaks and votes against the repealing of the Act” functions as a veiled threat and such knowledge cannot be lost on the MPs themselves.
There was always an understanding that as Khama’s Vice President, President Mokgweetsi Masisi was at the beck and call of his boss. Thus few were surprised when it was revealed that Masisi had used the opportunity of a meeting at Notwane Farms to lobby businesspeople to starve private newspapers of advertising. Going to back to when he was army commander, Khama had used denial of business to counter critical newspaper coverage. Then, the Botswana Gazette, under the editorship of Sunday Standard Editor, Outsa Mokone, had published a story about how the army had subverted public procurement rules to award tenders to Khama’s relatives. Khama retaliated by banning the sale of the paper in all army barracks across the country. As Festus Mogae’s Vice President, Khama would motivate an advertising ban on the Botswana Guardian and Midweek Sun as punishment for unfavourable coverage. So, when Vice President Masisi lobbied businesspeople to starve private newspapers of advertising, he was falling in line with a military-like strategy (scorched earth) that his boss had long adopted.
A month after ascending the presidency, Masisi became his own man in a dramatic way and during a meeting with journalists, promised to repeal the Media Practitioners Act. Motshegwa makes note of this promise, with the broader intent of making the point that more than three years after assuming office, the president has not fulfilled such promise.
For the most part, the Act has been characterised as detrimental to the work of journalists and while valid, this point stops short of making clear the fact that the Act also suppresses exercise of freedom of speech by members of the public. In addition to reporting what is happening in society, the press also publishes views (some highly controversial and critical of leaders) expressed by members of the public either through interviews with journalists themselves or letters to the editor. The Act is designed in such manner as to create a situation where such views would be actively suppressed. Motshegwa stresses such practical effect on freedom of speech if the Act is not repealed.
“Our take as a federation is that a free and independent press is the life blood of democracy as a watchdog holding institutions and leaders accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. It plays the role of informing the nation and thereby increasing political knowledge and nurturing participatory democracy. It also allows the public to form their own opinions on events as opposed to those pushed by their government and to voice their views without fear of persecution.”
The Act has its supporters and among those who have defended it is Dr. Raphael Dingalo who at the time was the Director of Research and Policy Development in the Botswana Government Communication and Information Systems, a department within the Office of the President. writing in Sunday Standard, Dingalo, who is now the CEO of the Human Resources Development Council, stated that “the Botswana Media Practitioners Act compares to a large extent with the Danish Media Liability Act, the country rated as the number one (1) free press country. Batswana, the Media houses in this country, and government must come to recognise that they compare with the best in the world.”
The proposed is coming to the floor as a private member’s bill by the Selibe Phikwe West, Dithapelo Keorapetse.