Monday, July 15, 2024

Government and media relations; how unkept promises are stoking old fears and suspicions

The media is struggling to chart a new course.

Events are generally not on their side, not least a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For some media houses things have never been harder. A majority of them are now literally struggling to get by.

Long before the pandemic arrived and the economy collapsed, some media houses were already struggling to survive.

Covid-19 has made an already bad situation worse.

The economic hardships that some sectors are only beginning to feel now, some media houses have lived with them for the ten years of Ian Khama administration.

Ten years of an anti-media government left many in the media weakened and indebted.

These media houses had found themselves having to fend off a double-barreled threat of an advertising ban and a determined government weekly at hand for repudiation for one crime or another short-coming.

Ever since the ascendance of Mokgweetsi Masisi the media has occupied what has often looked like an awkward space – unable to determine whether they are a fish or fowl.

Ian Khama, and this must be his enduring legacy, had beaten the media to a pulp.

By the time he left the media was weak and fatigued – exhausted by years of state hostility and an increasingly litigious public.

Many editors had been sacked or asked to leave on account of those litigations.

By the time he left, few were willing or strong enough to stand up to Ian Khama.

Advertisers had been successful in increasing their power in determining editorial policies.

To this day that trend continues in full speed.

Upon his arrival the media listened to Masisi rhetoric and felt like he had something new to offer.

Like many people they were taken in by his message of change – to do things differently.

He promised to be the opposite of Khama’s mean-spiritedness.

To be true neither the media nor the electorate clearly knew or exactly understood Masisi.

It was his anti-Khama rhetoric that held sway.

Admittedly, there had been mutual disdain between Khama and the media. The two sides talked past each other. And neither side was willing to listen much less engage with the other.

A majority in the media opted to give Masisi a fair hearing and with that a fair chance.

It is still early to say that decision was ill-advised and even earlier to say if media regrets it.

It is still too early to say that the mystique that carried so many people with hope has all gone with the wind.

But some are beginning to have second thoughts.

There are worrying signs early signs of future discomfort that cannot be left unattended.

There is a groundswell of general derision across the media. It is palpable.

It is a result of many things, including the general trajectory of our politics.

That the media has been playing the role of a responsible stakeholder in our democracy, is beyond any doubt.

They have not been met halfway and they have often lacked a partner on the government side.

Many in the media are right to feel that they have nothing to show for their efforts that the public had so forcefully demanded of them. They also balk at what they often perceive as calculated manipulations and veiled threats.

A strained kind of semi-ceasefire has nonetheless largely held since 2018.

It has been an uneasy truce.

But it has come at a huge cost to the media, who are strategically holding their guns in the face of growing corruption, incompetence, and glaring inconsistencies.

Begrudged tolerance has existed on both sides.

There was always the risk that the two would stumble into yet another messy confrontation.

But deep down, suspicions exist.

The media remains on alert mode, that anything can still happen.

Behind the scenes they talk of how nothing has happened.

Low key attempts to delegitimize the media continue.

Arrests of journalists have continued. But they have notably been fewer and far between.

Compared to the ten years prior, it has felt more like a temporary respite.

As the media we should not be complacent especially because it looks like this experience in co-existence is destined for natural death.

Much of the government’s pretentious veneer of tolerance, transparency, rule of law, anti-corruption and general decency are unable to pass the most elementary scrutiny test.

The feeling among some people is that the manipulation is only a precursor to brutality that will follow when everything else fails. The jury is still out.

The civil society is like half dead. The death of Sir Ketumile Masire has left the country without a venerable and independent voice that nobody can ignore.

Masire was such a voice for much of the Khama presidency.

The regime ridiculed and despised him, but could not afford ignore him. In South Africa for example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been one such figure. He has fought the ANC government with the same ferocity he used to fight the apartheid regime.

In short, this government can yet go on a rampage and still get away with it.

There are not many diplomatic offices here. And those that have a presence are largely in thrall to Botswana Government. This includes China and to some limited extent, the United States.

Things are still way behind what we had hoped.

The often-repeated petty accusations by the Office of the President that the media lacks professionalism are back, and now repeated with greater vigour, more frequency, greater sense of clarity and a near evangelical righteousness than was the case during Ian Khama administration.

The public is itself taken aback by sound-bites, calculated performances and the endless spinning of the facts.

These sound shockingly familiar to many in the media.

It is for them a dejavu.

And we are still very much in the early years.

Trust is an infinitely priceless asset. And once lost nothing can give it back.

Government media is once again back to where we thought it would never get – being used for propaganda purposes including to drown all voices of legitimate political opposition.

And the current government has potential to be far worse than was the previous one.

It cannot be enough to say the president has appointed a Spokesperson as if that has been a panacea.

For many in the media the struggle continues. In fact it never stopped.

Media leaders have voiced concerns about rising cannibalism in the sector as media houses cut corners both to survive and retain relevance.

The process to repeal and replace the Media Practitioners Act is moving ahead, albeit at a snail’s pace.

Covid-19 has ravaged the media industry – as a collective and also media houses as individuals.

Today the media is much weaker than was the case under President Ian Khama.

There is no turning to government for assistance.

It looks like the weak will simply be allowed to die.

During the Khama era, select media houses were specifically targeted.

Covid-19 has been ruthless – across the board.

The more cynical within the media are saying there is no need for intervention because the pandemic will do a much-needed natural culling in the industry.

For such people, this is the natural order of things – and it cannot be stopped.

But the media is itself a badly divided lot, perhaps a sign of the various stages of maturity each media house is at.

Even then its two-speed approach was never sustainable to start with.

But to their credit, the media has demonstrated a flexibility never seen before.

Perhaps it has to do with their weakness and a precarious existence that force a need to adapt to changing realities.

There are people in this government, including at Office of the President who still in their heads think the media is too spiky for their liking.

They think the media exist at their behest. And that giving out information to the media is a favour they dispense at own pleasure.

Ironically some of these are the people who cut their teeth working in the media.

This might be a sign of advanced schizophrenia.

The media is getting more and prickly. Their jobs are on the line. A bloodbath is expected.

Newsrooms have cut salaries some by more than half. Freelance journalists have gone for months without pay. And newspapers are falling far and far behind in their payment of printing costs.

It is an ugly sight.

In the meantime the audiences and the readerships have moved far ahead of the journalists. They are more informed, better read and generally versed with issues.

The media now must decide how to react in the face of the new set of circumstances.

They have a choice to set aside their differences and professional jealousies and fight their cause or to sink together.

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