Saturday, January 22, 2022

Leading the drive to defend media freedom

The newly appointed National Director of MISA, Phenyo Butale, steps into his position at a time when the role of the media is an increasingly contentious issue within the country. He appears to have a good idea about the way forward.

Before Phenyo Butale was recently appointed as the National director of the Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), he was best known for having worked as a news reporter and editor for the state-run Radio Botswana and Botswana Television.

It comes as no surprise then that one of the issues that is close to his heart is that of transforming the country’s state media into a public media system. Having first-hand experience working within the state media for six years, Butale knows the problems that journalists working for the Department of Broadcasting Services (DBS) face on a daily basis.

“There are journalists there who are not being allowed to work within their own professional ethics; I feel that it is critical for government to create an environment that is conducive for the professional well being of journalists, not the situation that we currently have at the Mass Media Complex,” says Butale.

However, Butale is quick to point out that this is not a confrontational statement; in fact, he feels that one thing that is critical for MISA to reassert itself as being the leading organisation in media freedom and freedom of expression is for them to engage more with government. There are plans to continue organising workshops to discuss policy issues related to freedom of expression with relevant stakeholders, especially legislators.

“Many people see MISA as being on a collision course with government but I don’t see it that way; it’s not a question of who will win or lose but rather a question of making government see things from our point of view and working together for the benefit of society,” says Butale.

He wants to go a step further and hold public discussions in order for as many people in society as possible to be able to learn about these important issues and share their opinions. The free sharing of opinions is at the heart of MISA’s mandate as it was established to promote media plurality, diversity and freedom of expression throughout the region of Southern Africa when it was officially launched in 1992. Botswana is one of 11 SADC member countries with a chapter of the organisation.

Butale’s vision to transform the state media system into a public one is part of the wider goal of establishing a three-tier broadcast system in the country, consisting of the commercial, the public and community broadcasters. The commercial consists of all profit-making media houses such as the private newspapers and radio stations while the community system is envisioned to consist of non-profit media entities aimed at advancing the interests of communities within the country, especially those who have, in the past, not been given a platform to share their views.

MISA is advocating for the establishment of community radio stations as a part of the push to adopt the three-tier system and Butale cites many countries within the region, such as Namibia and South Africa, in which the exercise of community radio stations has proved to be successful.

Butale goes on to mention that he wants to organise opportunities for legislators within the country to interact with their colleagues from other parts of the region who have successfully implemented the three-tier broadcasting system in their own countries. There are also plans to engage with the National Broadcasting Board (NBB) so that in future, the licensing can also move towards a situation that accommodates the three-tier system.

When quizzed about how he feels Botswana is faring in terms of freedom of expression compared to other countries in the region, Butale begins by saying that Botswana has, for a long time, rightly been considered a shining example of democracy and that the nation’s media freedom has always been exemplary by any standard.

He then cautions that if one is to examine a recent law like the media practitioners act, it becomes plain that it has striking similarities to the media act in Zimbabwe as they both call for the registration of journalists so you begin to wonder what the motivation behind them is. Butale adds that international organisations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have already said that the best way for the media to be regulated is through self-regulation.

Another contentious issue is the fact that Botswana neither has a freedom of expression law nor one that guarantees free access to information; MISA has been working closely with the Member of Parliament for Gaborone Central, Dumelang Saleshando, in an effort to get a freedom of expression bill introduced in parliament.

MISA organised a workshop in which the different stakeholders were able to engage the MP and provide their input into the specifics of the bill; Butale guarantees that they will continue to support the efforts of the MP. From the workshop they organised, a steering committee headed by MISA was formed to then work with the MP in drafting the bill and making all other necessary arrangements.

Phenyo Butale has a formidable task ahead of him but at least he seems to have a clear sense of the direction in which he wants to take the organisation and how to overcome the challenges that prevent it from advancing its mandate. As we conclude our interview, Butale states, “The most important question is whether we as a nation can still say we have an environment that enables the freedom of expression. It is part of our very nature; we believe every voice has to be heard. In a Kgotla setting, we say, “Mafoko a Kgotla a mantle otlhe” meaning everybody needs to be given an equal opportunity to speak and share their views. The sentiment should be the same in all spheres throughout the country.”

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