Three internationals organisations and a local one plan to be in Justice Motlhabani’s corner when he goes toe to toe with the state in a criminal case that is before the Gaborone High Court.
Motlhabani is the spokesman of the Botswana Patriotic Front, a party founded by former president Ian Khama last year, and is facing four-count criminal charges relating to “publishing statements with intention to deceive persons about the COVID-19 infection”, and “use of offensive electronic communication.” The state alleges that alongside Oratile Dikologang and Letsogile Barupi, Motlhabani is the administrator of a Facebook page called “Botswana Trending News” which published false information relating to President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the COVID-19 pandemic. The offending stories were headlined “Breaking, Masisi to pay BDP MPs P12.5 million each so that they can support state of emergency” and “Botswana hiding coronavirus cases to avoid causing unrest amongst the citizens.” Having been earlier denied bail by a magistrate court, Motlhabani and his co-accused succeeded in a subsequent application at the High Court.
Sunday Standard learns that the American Bar Association has appointed a local law firm, Matlala Attorneys, to observe proceedings in the case. ABA is a voluntary association of American lawyers, judges and law students whose most important activities are the setting of academic standards for law schools and the formulation of model ethical codes related to the legal profession. With services ranging from advocacy initiatives to provision of technical support to trial monitoring to petitioning governments and the African Union Commission, ABA also provides legal support to cases relating to media freedoms and digital rights. Its appointment of Matlala Attorneys has been made under a regional, South Africa-based programme called Advancing Rights in Southern Africa ARISA.
The latter learnt of Motlhabani’s case through Freedom House, a United States-based, US government-funded, non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists, another US NGO which promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists around the world, is monitoring developments in the case. Motlhabani says that CPJ will join the matter “once it’s established that I published any of the articles under scrutiny.”
Locally, an organisation called Molao Matters, which in written communication with Motlhabani says it is “assisting Ditshwanelo to monitor the human rights situation during the pandemic”, has also offered its own assistance in the matter. Ditshwanelo – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, is the country’s oldest and premier human rights organisation.
For now at least, the Media Institute of Southern Africa and the Botswana Media Workers Union are yet to offer similar assistance.
“MISA and BMWU have not reached out,” says Motlhabani, a former Big Brother Africa contestant and University of Botswana journalism graduate who now works as the Centre Manager for the Byte Size College campus in Palapye.
What these offers of support mean is that when the trial starts, Motlhabani will, in addition to his own lawyers, Unoda Mack and Peace Tamocha, have more legal manpower and firepower than the state. Tamocha is also BPF’s legal secretary.