Thursday, October 29, 2020

Botswana government calls Daily Maverick out

This is a rebuttal to a recent write-up, “Botswana: Censorship is not the cure for Covid-19” by INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, published by the Daily Maverick in South Africa.

I have a lot of respect for journalists and journalism. And I speak from the bottom of my heart when I say I until I saw that article, I was convinced that no self-respecting journalist could attach their by-line to such professional disgrace.

The article, which does not qualify to be called a feature story is everything a feature story should not be. It has been blighted by “framing bias”, “source bias”, “card stacking” and worse.

Manufacturing diversity to support a false narrative

The article begins by claiming that, “Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi has been accused of using the pandemic to crack down on critics and the media.”

This intro is designed to create an impression that independent and credible sources are accusing President Masisi of using the COVID-19 pandemic to crack down on critics. Thatthe presumed wisdom of these critics lends credence to the story’s underlying false narrative that Botswana is descending into a dictatorship.

In blatant journalistic fraud, the author of the story Mr Joel Konopo rigged the sourcing of the article to help support this false narrative.

The sources that Mr Konopo is quoting to give credence to his story are:

The executive director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Botswana chapter), Mr Tefo Phatshwane, who according to the article, “objected that the emergency prohibits independent journalists from holding those in power to account. 

He said Masisi has started a “censorship pandemic”, using wide-ranging restrictions as a cover to violate freedom of expression. 

“As journalists, we can’t rely on a government that we are expected to police,” he says. 

Mr Konopo however deliberately omits to mention that as a MISA board member he is Tefo Phatshwane’s boss and colleague.

To create an impression of a diversity of sources, Mr Konopo further quotes, “A lawyer, Mboki Chilisa, commented on social media that there is no point in punishing innocuous false statements “which no right-thinking member of the public could ever believe”

Again the author omitted to mention that Mboki Chilisa is a co-board member at MISA and a colleague. When you remove the veil of deception protecting the true identity of Mr Konopo’s “ sources” a very disgraceful and troubling truth emerges: All the voices behind Mr Konopo’s false narrative of a dictatorship are his colleagues at MISA. Mr Konopo however played around with their identities to create an impression of diversity. It would be a shame if MISA which I hold in high regard as a custodian of free and fair journalism was actually complicit in manufacturing source diversity to support a false narrative. This manufactured diversity has been used to support statements like, “There are well-grounded fears that the emergency powers will be used to extend the government’s grip on supposedly independent institutions.” Mr Konopo does not detail what the grounds of these “well grounded fears are”. To give support the this conclusion, he falls back on the apparently choreographed position of his friends masquerading as diverse sources.

This group also accounts for the “critics” in Mr Konopo’s statement that, “Critics say the law, with” broad and vague definitions”, is a gift to authoritarian leaders who want to use the public health crisis to grab power and suppress freedom of speech.”

It would be very unfortunate if MISA leaders willingly reduced themselves to professional propagandists or faux journalists to inject false facts and narratives into what was presented to readers as a balanced feature story.

Mr Konopo’s sleight of hand goes against every principle of journalism and is actually a trick used by professional propagandists. It is called “joining the bandwagon” in propaganda parlance.

Besides his MISA colleagues the only other “critics” voice cited in his article is BOFEPUSU. Here Mr Konopo was again apparently up to his monkey tricks. The only BOFEPUSU official who has been quoted in relation to the issue in other media articles is Ketlhalefile Motshegwa, of BLLAHWU a subsidiary of BOFEPUSU.

Mr Motshegwa stood for elections as an Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) parliamentary candidate and lost.

Given Mr Motshegwa’s political history, Mr Konopo may have been aware that disclosing his full identity would compromise the integrity and balance of the article, so he used BOFEPUSU as a front to launder his source.  Mr Konopo also omitted to mention that besides being a MISA board member, Mr Chilisa was also a financier of the UDC.

The bias in which Mr Konopo picked his sources, sourced his information and the extent to which he goes to launder his sources and manufacture source diversity says a lot about his true motives.

Manipulating balance to support a false narrative

While Mr Konopo generously inserts his opinion in the story and quotes his friends and colleagues from MISA to create and sustain the false narrative of a dictatorship, he deliberately closed out any voice that would discredit the false narrative.

To create an impression of balance, Mr Konopo interviewed police officers and government officials on the cases they were handling. No source from outside his circle of colleagues has been interviewed to provide an alternative voice to the “dictatorship” false narrative. In fact, credible alternative voices which are part of the public discourse have been deliberately closed out because they would discredit Mr Konopo’s false narrative.

For example, Mr Konopo quotes the MISA Executive Director

Mr Tefo Phatshwane objecting “that the emergency prohibits independent journalists from holding those in power to account.  He said Masisi has started a “censorship pandemic”, using wide-ranging restrictions as a cover to violate freedom of expression. 

“As journalists, we can’t rely on a government that we are expected to police,” he says. 

The quotation is designed to create an impression that Mr Phatshwane is speaking on behalf of the Botswana Media. Mr Konopo deliberately omits to mention that Botswana mainstream media houses as per a resolution of March 25th 2020 resolved to appoint the Editors Forum as the COVID-19 media protocol custodian.

Mr Konopo further omits to mention that the Media Protocol which was fashioned by Botswana’s mainstream media houses informed the government’s position on COVID-19 news coverage.

To be specific, the Editors Forum COVID-19 Media protocol states in part: “The media in Botswana commits to stay close to authorities, especially from the Ministry of Health, WHO and CDC for confirmation of facts of their stories before publishing.

. The media has agreed to compile a list of media houses that have made a commitment to adhere to the COVID 19 reporting protocol in order to assist the public with a guideline of where to find credible and reliable news.

As a watchdog, the media commits to help authorities disseminate factual information on COVID 19.

The media commits to assign Editors Forum Botswana to enforce the terms of the Covid 19 reporting Protocol.”

Had Mr Konopo held up the government’s position against that of Botswana Editors Forum, his “dictatorship” false narrative would have fizzled out in the pad. But Mr Konopo was not about to let fact and truth stand in the way of his story.

For balance and fairness, Mr Konopo should at the very least have incorporated the Editors Forum position in his story. The position would have provided the counterbalance to the view of his MISA colleagues. And just for perspective, MISA has no institutional media member as per its constitution. To be more specific, MISA has no paid up institutional member as required by its constitution. The Botswana Editors Forum on the other hand has signed up representation from more than 90% of the local media. In a nutshell the Botswana Editors Forum is the de facto representative of the local media while MISA is more like a fringe organisation. Mr Konopo’s article on the other hand has flipped this fact and stood it on its head.

Card Stacking

To help give his false narrative credibility, Mr Konopo also uses “card stacking” a technique, not from the journalism text book, but from the rogue intelligence propaganda manual.

To manipulate and mislead the reader, true facts are presented as a stalking horse for propaganda or false narrative. For example, Mr Konopo piggy backs his “dictatorship” false narrative on the country’s true history of an adversarial relationship between former President Khama and the civil society. “The trend began under former president Ian Khama, who silenced critical media and cowed citizens into apathy. His term in office ended in April 2018.  

Early indications that his successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi – vice-president for four years – had a penchant for intolerance was evinced in the run-up to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) congress in April 2019 when he openly thwarted his rival, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi’s incipient challenge for the party presidency.”

Mr Konopo however does not explain how President Masisi “openly thwarted” his rival.  He just leaves it to the readers imagination to brew a mental cocktail of “penchant for intolerance” and “public thwarting”, further giving support to the “authoritarian” false narrative.

Framing bias

Throughout the article, Mr Konopo uses expressions and metaphors to ether hide the true facts or to support his false narrative that, “The glitter of Botswana’s “shining example of African democracy” is fading, as the country of 2.3 million people slowly slides towards authoritarianism.”

In the write up, Mr Konopo states that, “The emergency powers also risk worsening the already adversarial relationship between the government and private media.”

Mr Konopo threw in the in the phrase, “adversarial relationship” to create an impression that the relationship between the government and the media is tense and to give credence to his “dictatorship” false narrative.

This is disingenuous to say the least. Only three months ago, I officiated at a MISA gala dinner where MISA under the leadership of Mr Konopo, Mr Chilisa and Mr Phatshwane stated publicly that the relationship between the media and government has never been this good.

Between that MISA gala dinner and Mr Konopo’s story I worked even harder to improve of the relationship which has never been this good. I have held meetings with Botswana editors where we agreed to come up with a blue print that would enhance my relationship with the media without compromising their editorial independence.

As I am writing this rebuttal, a number of media houses are either submitting or still putting together their recommendations and proposals on how I can serve them better. How Mr Konopo came to the conclusion about, “the already adversarial relationship between the government and private media”, baffles me.

But I guess Mr Konopo is on a mission, and would not allow truth to stand in the way of his false narrative.

Instead of allowing facts to speak for themselves, Mr Konopo goes to great lengths to use personal opinions and metaphors to guide the reader to a conclusion that fits his pre-fabricated narrative. He uses metaphors like “bulldozed” to describe the parliamentary debate and voting which endorsed President Masisi’s state of emergency; “alarming” to describe the state of emergency, without spelling out who is “alarmed” besides him and his circle of colleagues. Mr Konopo’s opinion that, “Masisi and his government have not been able to explain the need for a lengthy state of emergency, except to argue vaguely that the Public Health Act is too weak to enforce a lockdown” is presented as fact. The only information available in the article to back this claim is quotations from his MISA colleagues.

Instead of soliciting for true facts from government officials, Mr Konopo goes off on a tangent and claims that, “The government also botched the handling of the death of Botswana’s first victim of Covid-19. A local newspaper reported that the funeral of the elderly woman, from Ramotswa in the south-east of the country, was not handled in a manner consistent with guidelines for the burial of victims.”

How does Mr Konopo come to the conclusion that government botched the handling of the funeral?  What are the “guidelines for the burial of victims? Which of those guidelines were flouted?

Mr Konopo’s write up does not answer any of those questions but guides his readers to a false conclusion that besides being authoritative, Botswana government is also a blunderbuss.

We are aware that there is a concerted effort to undermine the official version in Botswana’s fight against the coronavirus. I have no doubt that we are all patriots who love this country genuinely. It would be a very sad day when we sacrifice our country’s health and the lives of its citizens on the altar of political point scoring. We are all facing an existential threat. Let us save our collectives lives and there after we can enjoy the luxury of saving our individual idiosyncrasies.

Kabo Morwaeng is the Minister of Presidential Affairs

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