Saturday, July 13, 2024

Government’s media pushback against Khama fails to gain traction

At this point, the government will have found out the hard way that, unlike former president Ian Khama, it cannot use international media to fight its PR battles.

As Sunday Standard reported in July, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services quietly organised a meeting with international media organisations at Bush Lodge, a luxury resort off the Lobatse-Ramatlabama road. Thereafter, three cabinet ministers addressed a press conference that clearly targetted international than domestic media.

Leading the charge was Kabo Morwaeng, the Minister of State President who confirmed what is now a public secret: that the genesis of the Masisi-Khama was the former’s refusal to appoint the latter’s younger brother, Tshekedi, as vice president – which appointment would have come with firm guarantee of becoming president.

“It was his demand, he wanted that,” Morwaeng said.

Ahead of the 2019 general election Khama also demanded to be “the face” of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party. As son of the founding president, former army commander, Bangwato kgosikgolo and re-donation philanthropist, Khama is very popular with the masses – who are an important voting bloc. Being the face of the BDP would have made him even more popular and he would have overshadowed Masisi even more. Morwaeng said that the party turned down this demand because party tradition has always been that the incumbent president is the face of the party during the campaign season for a general election. Morwaeng added that as a result of being rejected, Khama was “annoyed.”

In elaboration of the broader point about Khama not getting his way, Morwaeng said that contrary to what he had claimed about resigning from the BDP, Khama was actually fired “because of his indiscipline.”

The one other demand that Khama made was that Masisi should consult him when he appointed his first cabinet and after Slumber Tsogwane was fatefully appointed vice president, he (Khama) is said to have asked Masisi why he was not consulted.

Summing up these demands, Morwaeng said that to Khama, Masisi “was just his ball boy.”

Following this press conference, the expectation was that the media organisations that had been specially invited to Botswana would give the government as much editorial coverage as they had been giving Khama. That almost looked like it would happen when following the press conference, South Africa’s Sunday Times published an article headlined “Former Botswana president’s popularity is ‘exaggerated’: Botswana government.” However, the blitz of pro-government coverage that would have been informed by what the three ministers said at the press conference and what the Bush Lodge meeting had revealed never happened. On the other hand, Khama continues to use international media to attack Botswana.

Going back to 2019, Khama has been trash-talking the government, namely President Masisi – whose name he uses without the honorifics of presidential office and writes with a small M. After fleeing to South Africa a few hours before DISS arrested him for possession of “weapons of war”, Khama has been using South African and other international media outlets to continue his attacks on the government. One news channel of the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation television even has a journalist (Sophie Mokoena) who qualifies to be called Khama’s correspondent because she is the one who interviews him all the time. Oddly for someone whose name suggests she is familiar with the “kg-” sound and whom her colleagues addresses as ‘Mme Sophie’, Mokwena pronounces the former president’s name as “Gama.” She typically tosses Khama softball questions and only in the last interview did she come close to challenging him.

Last month, the government decided to finally rough-tackle Khama after he published a multiple-volume tome of the wrongs reportedly committed by Masisi and his government. As the distribution list and coverage showed, Khama’s main targets were foreign governments and media – who don’t typically raise issues that the domestic media raises. While happy to give the former president as much coverage as he desires, the collective memory of what he did to media freedom as well as to local journalists is still fresh in many, many minds.

In the particular case of Sunday Standard, editor Outsa Mokone and reporter Edgar Tsimane were subjected to persecution at the hands of the early (2008-2018), more-dagger-than-cloak iteration of DISS. Mokone was detained for a night after publishing a story that Tsimane had written about Khama being at the wheel of a vehicle that caused an accident in the dead of night. Getting credible information that DISS had ordered a hit on him, Tsimane fled to South Africa and only returned after Khama had stepped down. DISS would also attempt to strip Mokone of his citizenship. On account of collective memory retaining knowledge of what Khama’s rule was like, what the former president alleges about Masisi is typically tempered with detail about what happened between 2008 and 2018 – or dismissed as pot-calling-kettle hypocrisy. For that reason, international journalists have become a safer option and one Khama mostly relies on to relay his message to an international audience. However, there has been at least two occasions when South African media has rough-tackled Khama.

The first was when Citizen broke with tradition and published an article that was highly critical of Khama’s antics and quoted some people getting deeply personal with him.

The second was an interview with eNCA in which Khama was, for the first time, asked tough questions and promptly challenged on some of the things that he said.  The interviewer was Nkepile Mabuse, who is a senior executive producer for Checkpoint, “a weekly, half-hour investigative current affairs show featuring thought-provoking journalism.” The first encounter between the two was in 2010 when Khama, who became Botswana president in April 2008, was featured on CNN’s African Voices programme. At the time, Nkepile worked for CNN.  Having determined that Khama was no threat to western interests, western news channels (from BBC to Sky News to CNN to New York Times) generally gave Khama excellent press. Besides, African Voices didn’t dwell on controversy.

Some 12 years later, circumstances had changed completely. Mabuse, who is based in Johannesburg, has left CNN for eNCA and is part of a team that does hard-hitting journalism through Checkpoint. Prior to the interview airing, Khama and his party, the Botswana Patriotic Front, felt very confident enough that the interview would portray him in good light and helped advertise it. That wasn’t to be: Mabuse grilled Khama on issues that he clearly didn’t want to talk about. That was Khama’s first baptism of fire and he will certainly not be doing another interview with eNCA.

The eNCA interview was a deviation from the norm. Appearing on SABC late last month, Khama coasted through Mokoena’s softball questions and used the opportunity to, once more, attack Masisi viciously. Had the government’s pushback worked the way it was supposed to, Khama’s attack lines would have been neutralised but that is clearly not happening.


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