Friday, July 10, 2020

How the mighty pen thumbed Khama’s virulent sword (Part 1)

“The United States is deeply concerned by the arrest of newspaper editor Outsa Mokone by the Government of Botswana on charges of sedition relating to an article published by his newspaper, The Sunday Standard. The United States strongly values freedom of the press, which is a key component of democratic governance. Freedom of expression and media freedom, both of which foster the exchange of ideas and facilitate transparency and accountability, are essential components for democracy. Outsa Mokone’s arrest is inconsistent with these fundamental freedoms and at odds with Botswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance.” – United State of America Department of State Statement on the Arrest for Sedition in Botswana of Outsa Mokone  (Washington, 10 September, 2014)

To many observers of African contemporary politics, the arrest of a journalist in Botswana came as a shocker, least so, the open condemnation of its government by the American Department of State. For a long time, Botswana has been hailed as a shining example of democracy in Africa, particularly during the epoch when the continent was led by repressive and despotic regimes. What most commentators and scholars did not heed, however, was that Botswana had inherited from its former colonial master a suite of laws that Britain had exported to the entire Commonwealth of Nations. Over time these laws were repealed in Britain because of their anti-human rights postulations.

The sedition laws, a charge under which Outsa Mokone, Editor of The Sunday Standard newspaper, was arrested and detained has been rendered obsolete in many countries, thus the American condemnation of Botswana came as no surprise.Mokone was arrested and subsequently brought to court by the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP) about two months before Botswana’s general elections in October 2014. The sedition charge arose following an article carried in the Sunday Standard of August 31, 2014 titled “President hit in car accident while driving alone at night”.  Fearing for his life, the author of the article, Edgar Tsimane consequently skipped the country and sought asylum in South Africa. This followed a tip off that there was a DISS bullet with his name on it.Whereas the arrest of a journalist in Botswana might be regarded as an isolated incident, it is a truism that the country’s statute books are replete with laws that are not media friendly and whose effect is chilling on Freedom of Expression. The National Security Act, for instance, makes it an offence punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years for one to publish anything considered “classified”.

And the classification of any material does not require any more than a mere endorsement by a government officer of a stamp reading “classified” on a document. Another example of a draconian piece of legislation that has the effect of stifling journalists in their daily duty of investigating and reporting on matters of public interest, especially corruption perpetrated by people in high places in government, is the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crimes Act (DCEC). The Act (section 44) makes it an offence for the media to report on cases that are under investigation by the DCEC.The above are limited examples of a plethora of such similar laws whose documentation has been ably done by the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Botswana Chapter).The public condemnation of the Botswana Government by the American Department of State referred to above provides valuable insight into the state of media freedom and freedom of expression in Botswana during former President Lt. Gen. Ian Khama’s 10-year constitutional rule from April 2008 to April 2018 when he relinquished power to his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi.

While previous successive Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) administrations (BDP has enjoyed uninterrupted power for 54 years since independence in 1966) before Khama came to power had been shy to apply such stifling laws against journalists, something that gives credence to the US State Department’s assertion that Botswana has a “strong tradition of democratic governance”, things took a dramatic turn under the man from the military barracks whose aversion for the media was already a matter of public knowledge. From the time he was army commander through to his ascension as President, [Ian] Khama had always harboured a hostile attitude towards the local media saying their reportage dwelt on the negative.

As Commander of the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), and without any backing of law, Khama banned The Botswana Gazette, a local weekly newspaper, from circulating and being read inside the country’s biggest military barracks, for the sole reason that the paper had run a story he disliked. He did this without a care that he was effectively denying soldiers their basic right of choice and to acquire knowledge. Khama did not read local newspapers, he had previously publicly proclaimed.During the early days of his reign, Khama formulated what he called the 4 D’s, an acronym of the blue print of what he regarded as the basic tenets of his governance, comprising democracy, development, dignity and discipline (he was to later add to the list “delivery”, thus changing the acronym to the 5D’s). The aspect of media within the 4D’s nomenclature was discussed under the heading, discipline, contending as it were that the Botswana media was undisciplined!

Khama had during his tenure of office publicly pledged that his government would fund all defamation suits instituted against the media by public officers. The hostility against the private media seemed to permeate the public service and other organs of government. Under Khama, the country witnessed the greatest soar in defamation suits, with the courts responding in kind by awarding some of the most astronomical damages awards in the world. Government ministers displayed open hostility towards the private media, one example of which was shown by the public spectacle at Mogoditshane, when, in the presence of SADC Election Observers in 2014, Assistant Education Minister, Patrick Masimolole, threw an unprovoked tantrum at a journalist who sought to record a presentation he was giving in public. As if that was not bad enough, Khama single-handedly, and without any cogent reason, took the decision directing that the ruling party would not participate in the celebrated ongoing American Government-sponsored Gabz Fm live radio election debates.

The sudden decision left many, even within the BDP itself, dumbfounded.Under Khama’s 10-year presidency, accessing information in public coffers by the private media – even information not considered classified or state secret – was a feat requiring ingenuity on the part of a journalist. Information on matters directly bearing on the nation was hard to come by. Attempts by Dumelang Saleshando (Botswana Congress Party leader) to bring into law a Freedom of Information Bill was abruptly shot down by the ruling party legislators. At every opportunity, Khama took a bash at the local private media, while harnessing the State owned media outlets (Radio Botswana 1, Radio Botswana 2, The Daily News, Botswana Television) to propagate his aversion.The Khama government’s tough stance against an independent free media and its campaign of intimidation aimed at silencing criticism and marginalising the opposition voices was given impetus by none other than the notorious Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) under the command of its Director General, Colonel Isaac Kgosi, himself a Khama loyalist and trusted lieutenant from their military days.

The DISS carried out a campaign of terror under the pretext of national security, fighting corruption, nationalism and patriotism. The violations have been well documented and ranged from acts of intimidation against journalists and members of the opposition to breaking into their houses and offices, confiscation of computers containing journalists’ works and documents, among others.For example, on the afternoon of 6th and 7th March 2015, agents of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crimes accompanied by members of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services raided the offices of The Botswana Gazette and took away a computer monitor. The newspaper’s Managing Director, Shike Olsen, Acting Editor Lawrence Seretse and reporter Innocent Selatlhwa were arrested together with their lawyer Joao Salbany. The motive of the arrests was widely believed to be related to a story the newspaper had carried relating to a corruption investigation by the DCEC. Apparently, the DCEC wanted the newspaper to reveal the source of its story.In yet another incident that seemed to point to the police as agents provocateur rather officers of the peace, in February 2018, the offices of INK Center for Investigative Journalism were broken into on a Saturday night.

This incident of invasive crime happened two days after two plainclothes agents who introduced themselves as police officers from Botswana Police Service (BPS) headquarters told the Managing Partner of INK, Joel Konopo, to present himself before Assistant Commissioner of Police Mokuedi Mphathi in connection with a leaked intelligence report codenamed Tholwana Borethe.The document, which had been widely reported on by several newspapers and radio stations in Botswana, spelled out in details how the DISS had built a special task force to disrupt and weaken Botswana’s political opposition ahead of the country’s next general elections in 2019. Meanwhile, editors of four major newspapers – Mokone, Tshireletso Motlogelwa (Business Weekly), Justice  Kavahematui (Botswana Guardian), Lawrence Seretse (The Botswana Gazette)  had already been hauled before Mphathi in connection with the Tholwana Borethe report.

Significantly, the burglary at INK under circumstances that seemed to point to the police as agents of harassment, indicated a ceaseless campaign under a pretext provided by Tholwana Borethe, the alleged smoke and mirrors operation to defeat the democratic process in 2019 whose veracity and authenticity was being contested by authorities.Under [Isaac] Kgosi, the DISS was focused on terrorizing citizens; and the more upstanding/upright, the worse for the citizens. Kgosi’s DISS pursued transactions of goats between poor peasants and was as thick as thieves, with corrupt individuals in high places. Under Kgosi, speech froze in the throat as ordinary citizens feared even detection of their harmless faults. Here was a man who thought nothing of planting wiretaps in the homes of Batswana, including the country’s former presidents and outstanding statesmen, Sir Ketumile Masire and Festus Mogae. Kgosi’s disregard for accountability was given expression when he unashamedly boasted before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that he was accountable to no one, not even to the president of the republic.

This type of utter contempt for the highest office in the land is hard to find anywhere in the world.Trends the World over have been characterised by movement towards a self-regulatory media regime and governments have lent their support to this. Not in Botswana. The efforts of the media fraternity to have a self- regulatory body, The Press Council of Botswana, like other professions, that could allow peer oversight and self-discipline, have been singularly spurned by the government in Botswana. Although a Press Council would ultimately be formed, instead of promoting and encouraging the initiative, government came up with the Media Practitioners’ Act, whose object is to ensure control of the media by government.The environment under which the Botswana private media operated under President Khama was hostile, to say the least, and the occupational hazards abounded.

Surprisingly, however, the Botswana private media has been seen by many as an indispensable bulwark in the advance of democracy in Botswana. Despite the hostility from government, it is regarded as the authoritative source of uncensored information. Very few people would dispute the sterling task that Botswana’s private media has discharged to the nation – from not simply informing the people, but exposing high level corruption that government would have rather kept secret, to bringing to fore instances of abuse of power and sensitizing the populace on its rights and obligations. Truly, the private media has been a real partner in the development of democracy in Botswana.

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Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.