Saturday, December 3, 2022

Botswana scribes launch media freedom committee

Ever worried about State intentions to stifle them, local journalists launched the Media Freedom Committee in Gaborone recently.

Media Freedom Committee (MFC) is World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) initiative with an overarching objective of confronting challenges to media freedom that occur both internally within the media itself (such as professional practice issues, awareness of rights and responsibilities, self-censorship, etc.), as well as external environmental factors (legislation, safety, censorship, etc.). WAN-IFRA intends to empower media professionals to address what they themselves consider the greatest threats to press freedom.

MFC Chairperson, Emang Mutapati said in 2019 a WAN-IFRA representative came to Botswana to establish the local chapter of the Media Freedom Committee.

Speaking at the launch, the Chairperson of the Botswana Editors Forum (BEF), Spencer Mogapi said the biggest threat that media faces today is the court system.

He said a few years ago the biggest threat that the media had to deal with was from the security or intelligence services. Mogapi said that threat still exists but has fallen down the ladder.

The BEF Chairperson noted that it has to do with the quantum sums awarded against media houses by the courts.

“Astronomical awards are continuously being made against the media so much that the trend has become crazy. And even more worryingly, not reflective of events anywhere else and certainly not in the region,” he noted.

Mogapi believes these high awards are intended to weaken the media and ultimately fast-track the closing down of media houses.

He added that there has to be a cap on awards if the intention is to redress reputational damage because otherwise the whole spectre becomes a menace against media freedom.

Mogapi stated that an even bigger threat that the media faces has to do with the strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP).

He said as the BEF they have recently experienced a disturbing trend in the increased and egregious use of SLAPP.

“SLAPP typically describes the behavior of a rich and powerful plaintiff who ordinarily does not expect to prevail in a legal claim, but can with no resource constraint exhaust the time and resources of the defendants,” explained the BEF chairperson.

He added that these vexatious lawsuits come from the rich and the powerful, primarily to keep journalism from shining light on their behaviour but also to deter the public away from participating in any discourse involving these rich individuals.

Mogapi went on to note that these legal claims are aimed at intimidating and outspending journalists into censorship, simply because a lot of cash is needed to see them through and too often the media cave in along the way for fear of bankruptcy.

He said BEF has a set of proposals that they will be making to government on how best to deal with SLAPP defamations. The BEF wishes to have a law dealing with this.

Assistant Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Dumezweni Mthimkhulu reiterated government’s commitment to maintaining and promoting media freedom.

He said nobody can deny the indispensable role of the media and journalists in promoting and consolidating healthy democracies.

Mthimkhulu also noted that it is true that the nature of the job often puts journalists and the media on a collision course with some individuals, organizations or even some governments in other places around the world.

“Regrettably, in extreme cases, some journalists have even faced persecution or imprisonment. It is evident, therefore, that this is a problem that needs to be attended to as a matter of priority.” He added.

The assistant minister said he trusts that the Media Freedom Committee launch is held with the intention to find ways of working together and maintaining a conducive environment for the media to function at its best.

He also noted that the government has commenced consultations with the media with the intention of enhancing media vibrancy in this country. Adding that on the agenda is the intention to repeal the Media Practitioner’s Act 2008. A process he noted is at an advanced stage and that various media bodies and academia have submitted their proposals.

Mthimkhulu said in place of the Media Practitioners Act 2008, they are considering options including self-regulation of media. He added that the Freedom of Information Bill which is a popular demand of the media is being worked on.

“I hope that the committee that is being launched today will maintain the same stance and attitude demonstrated by bodies such as Botswana Editors Forum, MISA Botswana and BOMAWU, who have all had a hand in suggesting what a new media law for Botswana should be like.” He noted.

Competition Authority, Director of Communications, Gideon Nkala said he is concerned by the growing citizen journalism which may be seen to be taking away the shine from the media.

He said it’s important for the media to differentiate themselves from citizen journalists.

Nkala also stated that he feels there are a lot of anonymous sources in newspapers which makes one feel like they are reading some verified gossip. He said the media needs to move away from that.

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