While it wants to regulate the media through the Media Practitioners Bill, the government has yet to develop its own communication policy, 42 years after independence. The Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology itself has no communication policy.
The absence of a governmental policy is one of the reasons why editors publish stories that end with ‘so and so was not available for comment’, ‘our phone calls were not answered’, ‘the questionnaire was not responded to in time for the deadline’ and other kinds of explanation.
In extreme instances, filling this void has resulted in individual officers enforcing personal communication policies to do government business. While it is possible to interview the Commissioner of Police and station commanders across the country over the telephone without being acquainted with them, an officer in the public relations unit of the Botswana Police Service insists on an initial face-to-face contact with freelance reporters before he can do interviews over the phone. An elderly secretary to a director in the Ministry of Health insists that a questionnaire be faxed rather than be e-mailed over to her office because ‘that is the way it has always been done.’
In order to guard against being ‘misquoted’, spokespeople of some government departments insist on a questionnaire before they can give any information out. However, the questionnaire does not guarantee that you will get a response. One letter the writer sent to the National AIDS Coordinating Agency over an HIV/AIDS-related issue over five years ago has still not been replied to and returned. Lack of cooperation from bodies such as these limits the extent to which the media can play its part in the war against AIDS.
The questionnaire has very wide appeal. When in 1999 a group of landless people in Gaborone appropriated and parceled out among themselves vast tracts of state land that was lying fallow behind Grand Palm hotel, an attempt was made by some journalists at the crime scene to interview the leader of the band. The latter, who is now a Gaborone City councillor, said that he wanted a questionnaire.
Absence of a government communication policy means that even something as basic as making contact with an officer is extremely difficult. In some instances that could begin with a reporter being interviewed by the officer’s secretary. If you don’t pass the interview, you would not be put through to the boss.
In itself, being put through guarantees nothing because the next hurdle is dealing with the politics of the questionnaire. For a very good reason, the government has introduced cost-cutting measures but some officers do not allow media houses the opportunity to exercise the same frugality. There are government officials who ask for a questionnaire even for questions that require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
Unlike a face-to-face interview, the questionnaire enables the officer answering to choose and pick questions s/he wants to answer and robs the questioner of the chance to ask follow-up questions.
There are also officers who either have no appreciation of the basic nature of the journalistic enterprise or deliberately sabotage reporters who pester them with questions. This is how that happens: a reporter sends off a questionnaire on what they hope would be a scoop and the answers come in the form of a press release that is shared with all media houses. Answers to questionnaires tend to take too long to come which means that the information won’t be news when it arrives.
For the most part, the speed with which press
enquiries are responded to depends on how controversial the subject is. For example, making an enquiry about missing money (and giving clear indication that you are armed with documentary evidence) is more likely to elicit prompt response than one about why, for over two years, the government has not replenished condom dispensers in public places. The latter is a real-life example.
To its credit, the government has made attempts to communicate better with the media. One way has been to establish public relations units within ministries and government departments.
However, Rebaone Odirile, a reporter with The Botswana Guardian says that this development has not brought any fundamental change to the way government conducts its business with the media.
“Basically nothing has changed. Before PROs, a permanent secretary would ask you to give him time to answer your questions. I thought things would change when the government hired PROs because they studied at the same universities with journalists – some of them are actually journalists. I had hoped we would get responses in shorter time than used to be the case and that the answers would be more elaborate. That has not happened. What you have are new faces who are continuing an old practice. This was just a matter of creating employment on the government’s part because the PROs have not added any value to the way the government communicates with the media,” Odirile says.
Part of the problem has to do with the fact that a majority of the PROs are junior officers who are not sufficiently empowered and are also not part of the decision-making process and circle.
An unfortunate view is held within the Government Enclave that the media (the private one especially) is frightfully keen on sensationalism. It is probable that some of that anti-media sentiment has been cleverly sublimated into the proposed media law. Claims of an epidemic of sensationalism in newspapers appear exaggerated because, on average, that style of journalism constitutes less than 2 percent of editorial content.
If you go online, you can trawl through yards and yards of fascinating information about what at first glance might appear trivial stuff. More than a million websites contain information about the White House’s presidential podium and for years Discovery Channel has been running repeats of a documentary on Air Force One. It is not easy to do that kind of journalism in Botswana. The writer knows for a fact about attempts to write about the Attorney General Chambers building which has become one of Botswana’s iconic landmark that failed.
Denying the media opportunity to do development journalism and record history means that the public and future generations would be deprived of knowledge and information that would have empowered them. It is always going to be difficult for the media to educate and inform the nation (in the manner outlined in Vision 2016) if information does not flow freely from the government.
While no replacement for comprehensive policy, personal interest in media relations by the political head of a ministry can help a great deal. Education minister Jacob Nkate has gone to great lengths to ensure that there is free flow of information between his ministry and the media. The minister holds periodic press conferences where he takes questions from journalists on a wide range of issues. However, there is no guarantee that this practice would continue if Nkate transfers to another ministry.