Tuesday, August 11, 2020

News blackout on civil service strike

The ongoing public servants’ strike in Botswana has seen that country’s state-owned media cover only one side of the story. Yup, you guessed it, it’s the unionists who aren’t getting to air their side. And pleas by the public for current affairs programmes to discuss the strike have fallen on deaf ears.

Under the auspices of Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions, five unions ÔÇô the Botswana Secondary School Union, the Botswana Teachers Union, the Botswana Public Service Union, the Botswana Manual Workers Union and the Botswana Local Authority and Land Boards Union ÔÇô are demanding a 16% salary hike. In a public sector of 105,000 members, the unions claim 93,000 have granted them a mandate to go ahead with the strike. Government has, on the other hand, offered a 5% salary increase, on condition the economy shows some improvement by August. The strikers claim to have had no inflationary adjustment for three years while the government claims the country is still reeling under the effects of the world economic recession.

The government only allowed the public sector to fully unionise in 2010. Prior to that they were only recognised as associations. Previous industrial actions were, thus, unlawful and never undertaken by all unions under one umbrella body.

During the current strikes, only the government’s views have been televised nationwide. Tshiamo Rantao, lawyer for the unions, told the Botswana Guardian, “There is interference by government functionaries with freedom of the general public to receive ideas and information about the ongoing strike. Likewise it would appear freedom of professionals employed by government media to communicate ideas and information without interference is infringed upon by high level government functionaries or their employers.”

Only the urbanites, with access to the small, private print and radio media, are able to access any alternative opinion. The three private stations were only awarded national licences two years ago and cannot compete with government’s broadcasters.

But despite being denied the opportunity to air their views in the state media, the striking Botswana public service workers have not effectively used the new media, especially social network sites. The Internet is largely available in Botswana, but workers and the public in general don’t yet fully use it. Facebook is the most popular, but largely among the savvy youth, most of whom are not interested in labour or political issues.

Although having successfully mobilised their members to join the strike, the unions continue with the general laid-back posture typical of Botswana society, and have as a result spent most of the time singing hymns under trees. This is a stark contrast to neighbours in South Africa.

While this “good boy” mentality is commendable, the government’s tough stance led union leader Johnson Motshwarakgole to say it was taunting workers to turn violent when he handed over a petition to the minister of presidential affairs, Mokgweetsi Masisi on 21 April. The government also successfully approached the courts to order all health service workers, including cleaners, back to work. The unions in turn extended the strike, now entering its fourth week, and have declared the strike, initially supposed to end on 29 April, will continue indefinitely.

The tug of war for public perception usually permeates labour industrial actions as both parties rely on public anger to persuade the other. Therefore, it becomes a mammoth task for people living in countries like Botswana, where the state-owned media hold a monopoly, to win their struggles.
New media has so far failed to make much impact. One online video about the strike created by Sly Tlhage is circulating on Facebook, but has not sparked much response. A sizeable number of workers are computer literate and own cellphones that can access the Internet, and most unions offer cellphones on credit to their members.

While text messages are widely used to update union members, this leaves out members of the public who do not belong to unions. Besides the relatively small but vibrant private media, the striking Botswana public service workers, numbering between 70,000 and 93,000, largely rely on the SABC in Johannesburg to air their views. SABC television, which is received through free-to-air decoders, broadcasts the standoff regularly and has become popular for more balanced reporting. Although there are no statistics to show how many are able to access SABC, a lot of people use free-to-air decoders, known locally as Philibao, to access the broadcaster. That SABC2 broadcasts in Setswana has made it even more appealing.

Prior to the 2009 national elections, the national broadcasting board ordered the state broadcasters to air opposition statements. This order was, however, nullified by the then minister of communication, science and technology, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi.

However, this blackout affects only news contradicting government’s position. Since the strike began on 18 April, only the president and members of the executive as well as senior public service officers, have addressed the nation through the state broadcaster. When this was put to the minister of presidential affairs, Mokgweetsi Masisi, he promised unions would soon be invited to air their views. The unions raised the issue again when they handed him a petition on 21 April. But the situation has not changed.

The public has already once jammed a morning call-in radio show demanding it discuss the strike. These desperate attempts add to continued concern about the constant shrinking of freedom of the press and expression in the country. 

This is aggravated by the refusal of Botswana police to grant strikers permits to march and hand over petitions to traditional chiefs. On 6 May, Mmegi newspaper reported marches that had been planned across the country were frustrated, as the permits to march were either withdrawn or refused. In one village, Moshupa, the police stopped the marchers and allegedly detained some of the leaders.

In Botswana the recipient of a petition must first agree to receive it and the police must also be in a position to escort marchers, before a permit is granted.  This has made it easy for government to thwart plans. In most cases this has been enough to cow protesters into submission.

In March President Ian Khama threatened university students they would be blacklisted from government employment if they became involved in strikes.┬á After the 2009 general elections, Khama swiftly moved the media section out of the ministry of communication to the ministry of state presidency. This sparked an outcry from supporters of press freedom who saw it as an attempt to control the media. During Khama’s tenure a line has been drawn between private and state media, as the former are banned from some of his briefing activities, including when the president is addressing local councillors. In April, both Mmegi and Echo newspapers accused government of lying about its handling of the strike. While Khama and his government enjoy the use of state media at the expense of other parties, this is likely to backfire with the emergence of new media and social networking.

Thapelo Ndlovu is a journalist, civil society activist, former board member of the Press Council of Botswana and outgoing national director of Media Institute of Southern Africa (Botswana chapter). His investigative magazine, Sniffdog, will be launched soon.


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