I last addressed this event in 2006 when as guest speaker, I anchored my presentation on the philosophy of Amartya Sen as captured in his essay ‘Development as Freedom’. To refresh your minds Professor Sen’s cites gives a study of certain societies where free flow of information and freedom of the press makes them less prone to poverty, underdevelopment and civil strife. In times of famine, loss of human life and overall disaster were minimal. According to Prof Sen it is only in open, democratic and liberal societies where this was possible. The Nobel laureate provides a contrast with closed societies where famine and disaster wreaked havoc and mayhem, with a terrible human cost. In other words, open societies are able to better withstand disaster because they are under constant scrutiny and therefore unable to conceal famine and other natural disasters. Cases cited by Prof Sen including Botswana and India which suffered famine in the late 80’s. On the other hand, in repressive societies, famine and hunger take root because no one holds the state to account. The essay cites closed societies such as North Korea, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. But on this occasion what does Amartya Sen say to us on issues of openness and free flow of information?
He says society must be open and liberal in order to prosper. For as long as some societies remain closed and repressive they will never prosper. Amartya Sen also says democracy and human rights only thrive in societies that permit the free flow of information
The theme for today’s World Press Freedom Day is therefore very apt.
We gather today when Botswana is on the cusp of change. Every society must undergo political change at some point in its life. Our country is no exception. Change will manifest itself in 2014. Indeed developments of the past few weeks indicate that there are sections of our society who are deeply concerned about the direction the country is taking. In fact many of our citizens are convinced that since April 2008 our country is experiencing a deficit in areas fundamental to our identity as a nation. Many of us are asking;
-Where is democracy
-Where is sanctity for human life
-Where is the rule of law
-Where is human rights
-Where are civil liberties
-Where is ethics and good governance
-Where is tolerance
-Where is privacy from Big Brother?
All these questions are precipitated by our leaders. To a large extent these are questions we never had to contend with before 1 April 2008.
Any normal society would react to the questions raised. In the case of Botswana, we have seen, for the first time in 48 years, and after three presidents, a historic split of the ruling party. Out of concern for their nation, some patriots have chosen the wilderness of opposition politics to save their country from imminent doom. Some say we are nostalgic for the era of Quett Masire and Festus Mogae. We are not ashamed to admit so. Afterall during their tenure, we never raised the questions we do today.
The agenda of the April 2008 regime, and its assault on our fundamental values as a nation forced our hand. At some point something had to give. Hence we witness the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy. This has not been an easy decision. Some of us were children of the BDP. The party was our parent. Estrangement from a parent, short of parricide, is the ultimate tragedy. Notwithstanding we took the view that in order to protect the rest of the family, Botswana, we must divorce the abusive parent who has lost sight of family values. We could have chosen the comfort zone of remaining in the ruling party to suffer in silence like so many of those who remain behind. As patriots we chose to align ourselves with the vast majority of Batswana who say we can no longer recognize our country; who say we need to reclaim our country; who say we want our country back!
We are therefore privileged to be invited to speak on this auspicious occasion. Our message of solidarity is that all civic groups and political parties need to mount a united front against the assault on our values, central to which is democracy and a liberal, open society. We are joyful to be in the company of friends who share with us the deep concern we have for the direction our country is taking. The statement amplified by so many patriotic organizations here today gives us strength because it says no one can defeat the collective will of a people who treasure democracy and freedom. No one can defeat Batswana. This is our country. As the BMD slogan goes, Ke Botswana Wa Rona!
Our message is to call on the trade unions, NGOs, opposition parties and all Batswana of a patriotic persuasion to defend our long standing national values. Mindful of the efficacy of information free flow in the promotion of democracy and freedom, as taught to us by Prof Amartya Sen, we the BMD commit ourselves to partner MISA and the media fraternity in the quest for a Freedom of Information Act. Our MPs will, upon commencement of the July session of parliament pursue this matter with renewed vigour. We will not rest until a FOI Act is enacted. What is our government concealing from us in its entrenched opposition to the Act?
Let it be known that the state does not own the information in its possession. It holds such information in trust for the people of Botswana. Consistent with progressive democracies, a legal protocol must be put in place for the citizenry to access such information for purposes of promoting trust, accountability and transparency in our society, as envisaged by Vision 2016. Indeed BMD MPs will re-engage with the Media Practitioners Act. We believe all laws must enjoy universal acceptance if they are to attain legitimacy. The Media Practitioners Act does not. As BMD we will seek to repeal the Media Practitioners Act so that all stakeholders formulate a law that does not serve the interests of a few, but of our entire society.
Let me say something about the public media. The wilderness of opposition politics for those of us who have fled the abusive parent has been brought into sharp relief by the conduct of state media. Never in the existence of our public media has its facilities and personnel been abused in the manner we are now witnessing. The story of the BDP schism and the circumstances informing this historic event must be conveyed to the nation, comprehensively and without bias. As is now common knowledge there are two belligerent factions at odds. In that case natural justice, fairness, balance and transparency dictate that both sides should be heard equally in order for the nation to reach a correct conclusion with regard to who is right, and who is wrong. The reprehensible practice of giving coverage to only one side leaves Batswana deeply suspicious that a more plausible version of events is hidden from them. We must recognize that a one sided slant on news and commentary has the long term effect of eroding the credibility of public media outlets. The attitude, borne from desperation that Batswana are simpletons who will always believe the misinformation peddled by those granted daily coverage on the public airwaves, purely because they hold the levers of power will not stand the test of time.
It need be noted that as the BMD we do not seek favours from public media institutions. We demand fair and equitable coverage. It is our constitutional right to enjoy access to the airwaves.
Sadly the conduct of the public media reinforces the groundswell of opinion that our government can longer claim to be an African exception, but has instead become part of the rogues gallery of intolerant and paranoid regimes where freedom of information and association is severely curtailed. On account of the subversion of public media, Botswana joins the ranks of 3rd world backwaters where plurality of voices on public media is anathema unless it is in praise of the ruling party. In fact this ongoing subversion of public media disqualifies the BDP government from criticizing ZANU-PF and its abuse of public media in Zimbabwe. On this score the two parties are birds of a feather.
Let us underline that our words are not directed at the professional journalists in public media who operate under difficult circumstances. Our condemnation is aimed at their political principals without whose intimidatory instructions public media journalists would be discharging their duties ethically and in accordance with accepted standards. Today as we commemorate World Press Freedom Day, let us all assure public media journalists that they have our support and sympathy.
*This is part of a speech at the commemoration of World Press Freedom Day where Ntuane spoke in his capacity as chairperson of the Executive Committee(EXCO) overseeing the formation of the Botswana Movement for Democracy.