The one reason that former president Festus Mogae felt bold enough to publicly tongue-lash the current “regime” was because he thought himself to have been a better leader than President Ian Khama. Is it so or did the kettle delude itself by accusatively calling the pot black? On the basis of how he characterises the attitude of both men towards the private media, Professor Agreement Jotia, a democracy and education specialist at the University of Botswana, would go with the latter.
“It is clear … that President Mogae did not take kindly to government criticism or negative reporting by media, just as General Khama does today,” Jotia writes in an academic paper that will be published in the forthcoming edition of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies. Jotia asserts that while Mogae “did not put his foot down so much on press issues he disagreed with, he still had his own ways on displaying abhorrence to the private press.”
Exhibit One is the Botswana Guardian/Midweek Sun advertising ban which was implemented during Mogae’s administration. Jotia says that this ban was a result of these newspapers “publishing articles which were critical of certain leaders of the country including the President and the Vice President.” The latter position at this time was occupied by Lieutenant General Ian Khama. One particular Botswana Guardian front-page article irked not just the presidency but the publisher as well. The article was titled “The Shrinking President” and showed a digitally shrunk image of Mogae bowing to a blown image of Khama, this being a collaboration between then Botswana Guardian editor and current Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone, and the graphics department. The publication of this story was followed by tremendous kerfuffle with the publisher, William Jones distancing himself from the story.
Exhibit Two is the deportation of a University of Botswana scholar, Professor Kenneth Good, just as he was about to present an academic paper critical of the government. Not itself a demonstration of press intolerance, this action manifested evident proclivity on Mogae’s part to limit freedom of expression, which expression would have been amplified through press coverage.
Exhibit Three is Mogae being comfortable with (and in ways that he could solidifying) a status quo that centralised the operations of a powerful government media apparatus in the Office of the President.
“Summarily, President Mogae and General Khama are different political figures, yet no clear line seems to distinguish them from one another when it comes to their attitude towards private media. They have both used their constitutional powers to clampdown on any media or individuals whose publications or scholarship could be interpreted as problematic to the general reputation of the state. In comparison with other African political standards, Botswana can be seen as a ‘successful’ democratic state and it is often celebrated as such. However, when it comes to the practical running of the country, the many constraints on media freedom and freedom of speech allow us to realize that the state’s power has been used cumbersomely to suppress freedom of expression,” Jotia writes.
The caveat he adds though is that Mogae was not nearly as combative as General Khama is. The example he gives here is of the latter suing Sunday Standardin 2009, “claiming that the newspaper had defamed his character by claiming that he might have had a hand in a case where security agents shot and killed an alleged armed robber. The newspaper in turn threatened to countersue General Khama, who ultimately ordered his attorneys to drop the case.”