The limitation imposed on public comment relating to pending or ongoing court cases is respected. Legalese on such restriction is abound.
In a democracy, however, the need to strike a balance between the two rights; the exercise of free expression and the desirability to protect the integrity of the Courts, does often arise.
Recently, two leaders of the BCP Youth League, Seikise Lotty Manyapetsa, Youth President and Thato Osupile, the League’s Secretary General, have been hauled before the Gaborone Magistrate Court on allegations that they have threatened a breach of the peace. It is alleged in the papers before Court that, without lawful excuse, the two youth leaders went to BTv premises and demanded to see one Gloria Kgosi, the Assignment Editor at the station.
That, upon being denied such permission, the two allegedly refused to leave the premises and forcible entered the News Desk office. It is apparent that the two had gone to BTv premises to enquire why a BCP political event, at which party leader, Gilson Saleshando officiated, was not covered, contrary to an earlier promise.
The truth of these allegations is yet to be determined by the Court in the fullness of time. However, already at the first hearing of the case, the dis-ingenuity of the State displayed itself, when the allegation that the accused had uttered insults, was quickly withdrawn after prodding by the Defence Counsel, Dick Bayford. No reason, why this allegation was made in the first instance has been advanced.
This postulation by the prosecution, finds trail in the statement made by the Minister of Communications Science and Technology, Pelonomi Venson ÔÇô Moitoi, following the occurrence, in which she craftily avoided the real issue, but made criminal imputations against the youth leaders’ conduct.
The real issue to be addressed is how democracy can flourish when the most widely available mass media, television, is not independent, but operates under the most skewed and glaringly disproportionate fashion, particularly in its coverage of political discourse. BTv, it is generally accepted, has been transformed into the ruling BDP mouthpiece.
It is expected that the case will provide an opportunity to interrogate and introspect on the role of the National Broadcast or in the advancement of a pluralistic society, even treatment of players on the political field and the credibility of this institution on ethical journalistic reportage. The bias of BTv on its reportage of political issues has, since the advent of the Khama Presidency, become nakedly unmitigated and unapologetic.
Of recent, the nation was treated to a spectacle on national television when the President’s confidante, Thapelo Olopeng, who does not hold any office, public or within the ruling party, was accorded unprecedented coverage upon being called by the President, at a BDP function, to come to his defence against the media. BCP has since lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman to have the Minister censured. His decision on this complaint is yet to be delivered. But, as experience has shown, as was with the Ombudsman’s ruling on Khama’s abuse of military aircraft, our objection could, but only be a matter of principle.
The country yearns for a clear policy on the public media, which would amongst other things define its role in upholding of democratic values and the dichotomy between the ruling party and government. It is stated that there exists some kind of position at the Mass Media Complex that the President and his vice, enjoy unlimited coverage on BTv and other public media outlets, irrespective of whether such coverage relates to matters totally partisan or governmental. A distinction needs to be drawn between the competing roles commanded by these individuals.
An equitable and democratically ÔÇô sensitive policy is one that would, whilst appreciating the advantage of political incumbency, also take cognisance of the importance of political pluralism and the need to afford the opposition a fair share of coverage. In such policy, freedom of expression is, naturally, paramount.
The ruling party must be sensitised to the fact that freedom of expression does not only denote the right of one to state his views, but carries with it the corollary right of the public to receive divergent points of view.
It is hoped, through the case that whilst the Court addresses the issues presented before it for its determination, public debate on the stated matters of public interest should take parallel course. The BCP stand unequivocally by its youth leaders and will do everything within its powers to ensure that they receive justice.
* Dumelang Saleshando is the Publicity Secretary of Botswana Congress Party (BCP)