Thursday, July 18, 2024

Khama should reflect on what he has so far done to advance media freedom

Together with other freedoms, the freedom of expression is something guaranteed by the Constitution of Botswana.

That freedom, as is to be expected, does not exist in a vacuum. It also comes with responsibilities.
The media in many of its formats is just one of the platforms through which such freedom is exercised.

From the onset, we want to state for the record that compared to many other countries Botswana has made strides in the development of the media.

In the same token, we want to say such developments have come not because of Government, but in other instances, not withstanding government and despite it.

Even as strides have been made, we hasten to point out that what has been achieved so far is not irreversible.

We have in place a litany of laws and other instruments that make the operations of the media difficult.

Events in South Africa, from where our government copies many of its innovations, are disconcerting.
In South Africa, the ANC government is spiritedly trying to come up with all sorts of instruments through which it will limit expression, not just by the media practitioners but the public in general.

We have in the past emphasized that in calling for enhanced media freedoms we are not calling for a special dispensation for journalists.

Neither are we saying the journalists in Botswana should be allowed to operate outside the law.
All we are saying is that the Government of the Day should provide an appreciation that its tolerance of the media is half-hearted. That if they had their way they would rather exist in an environment where there is no media or, at the very most, where any media existed it is that which they control as to literally use as their mouthpiece as is currently the case with Daily News, Radio Botswana and Botswana Television.

The world over, there is a move by governments to withdraw from operational controls of newsroom.
The closest example is the South African Broadcasting Corporation where while Government retains influence through the appointment of a Board which in turn appoints executives, there is no direct link which amounts to meddling as is the case in Botswana.

It is disappointing that while other countries are moving in the direction of releasing media houses from the shackles of official control in Botswana we still are crafting laws that effectively give ministers who are from beginning to the end politicians, control over newsrooms.
The Broadcasting Bill currently before parliament, which has raised so much alarm and controversy, is a regression.

Not only does the Bill violate international norm, it also raises serious suspicions and doubts on just what the long term intentions of this government are.

Given what is currently happening, it is inconceivable that we have a government that is about to cede control. Otherwise why would it be coming up with innovations that in effect consolidate and even broaden state control when the trend everywhere else is to minimize government involvement in the business of running the media?

It may well be that the Government of Botswana has not put a journalist in jail for doing their work, but it is important for President Ian Khama to reflect just what he has done since becoming president of the republic to advance media freedoms.

It cannot be enough for him to say that during his term media houses increased by any number, if indeed that is so. What matters is for him to stand up and tell the world just what deliberate efforts he marshaled to enhance the free flow of information through the media ÔÇô both private and state owned.

President Khama still has a chance. He still has the power to get the ball rolling to release Botswana Television, Radio Botswana and Daily News from his own jackboot and that of his ministers.
President Khama still has time to book himself a place among the world’s great leaders in the mould of Thomas Jefferson who deliberately went out of their way to enhance media freedoms even as such freedoms would result in allowing the same media scrutinizing and, in other instances, criticizing the President himself.

President Ian Khama still has an opportunity to confound us all by moving in a direction that would turn the current state media houses into public media houses that are not only free but, more importantly, professional and independent in their operations.

So far, history cannot be predicted to likely judge Khama any more kindly than his predecessors when it comes to media freedoms.

It was under Khama that Botswana Government passed into law the notorious Media Practitioners Act which effectively abrogates a minister extensive control over newsrooms, including over the processes of public complaint against the media.

All efforts by such bodies like the Publishers Forum, the Editors Forum, Press Council and MISA to get Khama’s government to the table to reach an amicable resolution of differences over this law have been met with contemptuous disdain and dismissal from the president.

Recently, the Leader of Opposition, Dumelang Saleshando made attempts to come up with the Freedom of Information Act. Saleshando’s attempts were stonewalled by ruling party Members of Parliament, with clear instructions and other instances the cue from the Office of the President.
That was unfortunate to say the least.

And even before the dust settles, President Khama’s government has now come up with the Broadcasting Bill, which has in the past been rejected by stakeholders on account that it failed to adhere to international norm and standard.

Clearly, when it comes to media freedoms, this is a government on a mission.
We call on the President to reflect on what he has so far done to advance media freedom.
As someone once said, we do not know what Khama’s intentions are, but they can never be good!

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