Government will start using public funds to sponsor defamation law suits by Cabinet Ministers and senior public officers against the media, President Lt Gen Ian Khama announced this week. Addressing the 35th High Level Consultative Council (HLCC) on Thursday Khama said government was concerned “ at the growing slander now being directed against members of the executive, including senior government officials, who are subjected to personal attacks for carrying out their public duties.” Khama said government has decided that where members of government, including senior officials, have been the subject to such abuse by the press, government will extend to them appropriate legal support.
It is a legal principle in Botswana that public ministries cannot bring an action for defamation as this would have an unwelcome “chilling” effect on the media and public criticism of governmental bodies. Individual ministers and officers can sue for defamation, but not the ministries themselves. The legal safeguard against the “chilling” effect on the media and public criticism of government bodies is however under threat because the Khama administration has decided to circumvent it by sponsoring ministers and senior public officers to sue for libel.
There are already fears that if the Government, which has no shortage of funds, sponsors officials to sue media houses which do not have the same resources to defend themselves, journalists will be discouraged from criticizing and questioning government decisions. Media houses facing libel law suits could end up paying hundreds of thousands of Pula in legal fees even if they win their cases and having less money means having a far smaller fighting chance against the rich government.
Cases can go on for years, judgments can be appealed and the costs will skyrocket. Only those with very deep pockets can pursue such cases to the end. Thus, the defamation law is often used by the rich and powerful to stifle criticisms of them Contacted for comment MISA Botswana Executive Director Buyani Zongwani said it is regrettable that the government of Botswana is considering such retrogressive measures. He said government is addressing symptoms and fails to address the course adding that the course of most of the discomfort that the President has on the media is the absence of the Freedom of information ACT. “Where such an act exist there is likely to be less discomfort from government because information officers will be empowered to release information on request by journalists.
The draft act that was rejected by parliament in 2012 also calls for government and other bodies that hold public information to make some information public even if there is no request,” said Zongwani He emphasized that MISA’s view on the issue is that the office of the President through Minister Masisi should table the freedom of information bill in Parliament as early as possible. He pointed out that the Bill provides for the establishment of the Information Commissioner who will adjudicate on cases were by there is an appeal from the person requesting information and is denied such information or the holder of such information is taking unreasonable time to respond.
“The role of media in a democracy like ours is to make leaders account so that members of the public can in turn make informed decisions regarding their promises,” he said. Zongwani stated that the laws taint Botswana’s image in the international community and threatens our status of shining example of democracy in Africa. He added that probably that is why Botswana is ranking below emerging democracies such as Namibia and South Africa on the Freedom of expression index of 2011. He noted that Namibia is Number 22 in the world while Botswana is seating at number 43, a step below South Africa.