Former President Lt. Gen. Ian Khama turned the vocation of journalism into a life and death mission. Speaking out against government became a death-wish and Batswana learnt to look over their shoulders before shooting their mouths. The whole country was cowed into silence as the infamous Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) waged a campaign of terror and intimidation. Journalists and opposition politicians had the worst of it. It was the halcyon days for enemies of free expression who were able to carry out excesses without anyone calling them to account. While the world’s most notorious intelligence organizations – the CIA and Mosaad – are subject to civilian authority, since its inception, the DISS under founding Director General, Isaac Kgosi, had gained notoriety for its shadow operations.
While they kill, frame and maim, the CIA and Mosaad know that they are not law unto themselves. Their posture is prevention of external threats. Not so with the DISS of Khama’s era. The spy agency took the leading roles in the drive to denigrate Botswana’s democracy and had many people believe that its operatives were above the law. When aiding visiting journalists, local scribes always knew they had attracted DISS tails.The omnipresent outfit had moles in every newsroom, making work extremely strenuous for self-respecting editors. There have been cases where visiting journalists have had their hotel rooms broken into, ransacked and the entire work of their visit stolen. One example was when an AL JAZEERA team had their room at Travel Lodge burgled and their photography equipment stolen in 2014 in an incident that had the hallmarks of the DISS. The incident happened at the height of tensions between warring factions within president Khama’s ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) which had previously led to the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD).
The leadership of this splinter faction were arguably the rising stars at the BDP and leaders-in-waiting; a new crop of leaders who were poised to assume the reins of power from its aged leadership. President Khama’s decision to marginalize and ultimately push these Young Turks from the party was seen by many as either an outright foolhardy move on his part or part of his grand strategy to rid the BDP of, or marginalize, all those he perceived as a threat to his continued stranglehold on the party. The death of BMD’s young and charismatic leader, Gomolemo Motswaledi, in May 2014 in a freak road accident, had fingers pointed at the DISS.To this day, the DISS is placed at the crime scene of many extra-judicial killings. There was even speculation that Khama was never far from the smoking gun. The former president did not help his case when he pardoned Botswana Defence Force (BDF) soldiers convicted of the murder of John Kalafatis, the crime suspect who died in a hail of bullets at a Gaborone shopping complex. Consequently, and for a long time to come, the DISS under Kgosi continued to receive a fair share of bad press. Its Director General had been in the midst of a protracted controversy relating to an investigation of corruption, money laundering and abuse of office. The investigation against Kgosi was apparently commenced in 2012 by the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crimes (DCEC) and to-date the investigation docket is kept under wraps. Khama, as Kgosi’s appointing authority, maintained a deafening silence amidst the controversy surrounding him, triggering a media frenzy never experienced in the country’s media history.
Instead of acting against Kgosi, the state approached the High Court for an urgent interdict to gag Sunday Standard from reporting on the contents of Kgosi’s docket. What this meant was that the independent media was intimidated to continue carrying out its mandate, a key element of which was to report on excesses of the state including high level corruption involving people in the high echelons of political and economic power. These were not isolated incidents but part of a pattern, casting a gloomy shadow over media freedom and freedom of expression. Among these were: the sacking of broadcast journalists Reginald Richardson and Keikantse Shumba from Gabz FM in November 2016 by a management under duress from the government; harassment of journalists from INK Centre for Investigative Journalism – Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, Joel Konopo and Kaomboni Kanani – by an army patrol at Mosu, a small settlement in Boteti sub district, in February 2018 in a situation that harked back to apartheid South Africa’s pass laws that negated freedom of movement for the majority of South Africans.
The INK journalists had visited Mosu to investigate allegations that president Khama had used state resources to build his personal retirement home. The DISS and its activities under Kgosi had become a heated election campaign issue. Khama’s silence and inaction in matters relating to the DISS and its boss had irked many people. All this was not helped by government’s running battles with the country’s media, characterized by Khama’s unblemished dislike for the Fourth Estate. The detention of Outsa Mokone on charges of sedition and the fleeing of journalist Edgar Tsimane to South Africa to seek political asylum in fear for his life brought into sharp focus the hostile conditions that Botswana’s media operated under during Khama’s presidency. This prompted the United States of America’s Department of State to issue an uncomplimentary statement against the Botswana Government in September 2014, accusing it of stifling freedom of expression. But to say there was no one to call the malefactors to account is not to diminish the courageous – even dauntless – campaign of men and women of the independent media.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel following a government imposed advertising ban on the independent media, journalists continued to inform, educate and entertain, with issues ranging from military spending, Botswana’s equivalent of Nkandla (the controversial retirement home of former South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma) at Mosu, the promotion of white supremacy in our so-called multi-racial republic, tax evasion and the stashing away of personal fortunes in offshore accounts to the detriment of Batswana, and Khama’s government’s secrecy and dark avenues in the financial sector that enabled a criminal underworld to flourish, to celebrating the achievements of athletes, sportsmen and sportswomen who brought home awards and medals against all odds because theirs is a country with the bizarre distinction of being the third most unequal society in the world. If Kgosi’s irreverence to the President, which he demonstrated before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee by pronouncing himself not accountable to anyone, was because the law permitted it, then such a law has no place in our democracy. The Attorney General has a duty to revisit the law and advise parliament accordingly. The nation can only thank Kgosi’s blunder for bringing this to the fore.