Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Presidential press conferences could resume after 10-year hiatus

Nobody can say with absolute certainty what kind of leader Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi will be but he will certainly do things a lot differently than President Lieutenant General Ian Khama. “It was a pleasure seeing members of Parliament and the Media. I am looking forward to deliberations in the next couple of weeks that will ultimately ensure we move our country forward,” reads a statement from Masisi’s office in relation to the opening of the 2017/18 parliamentary year.

Not only has the outgoing president never had such pleasure, he has never hidden his disdain for the media which he sought to delegitimise (and thus discredit its reporting) in his very first speech as president. In his inauguration speech on April 1, 2008, Khama mentioned the media not as a partner in democratic governance but as an agent of “some of the social problems in our society” that needed to be tackled.  “These range from alcohol abuse, reckless driving on our roads, disrespect for elders, vandalising of school property, wastage of scarce resources such as water, the use of abusive language in public discourse and defamation, slander and false statements in the media.

The examples I have cited reflect a lack of discipline by some sections of our community,” he said. As he steps down in five months, Khama has never addressed a single press conference and is more comfortable with foreign journalists ÔÇô who don’t know what is happening in Botswana ÔÇô than with local ones who do. It is far too early to draw any conclusions about Masisi but the statement from his office suggests he may be a breath of fresh air. In Mogae’s era, speeches by ministers would recognize the press and while there were episodes of feuding, there was at least recognition of the important role that the press plays in a democratic society. That stopped under Khama who also denied journalists part of their citizenship. While not entrenched in the constitution, economic rights are an important dimension of citizenship and Khama starved a critical private media of advertising, leading to staff layoffs in some instances.

In more literal manifestation of the latter, it was under Khama that the government sought to revoke the citizenship of the Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone, who is a bona fide Botswana citizen. It would be impossible to predict what sort of relationship Masisi will have with the media but the lesson from around the world is that the most successful administrations are ones in which political leaders have a healthily adversarial relationship with the media. Interestingly, a thaw in relations between the presidency and the press would yield benefits for the government’s own public relations officers.

The latter, who are themselves part of the media, became collateral in General Khama’s war against the press and were reportedly treated with suspicion because of their links with an institution (the media) that is supposed to be anti-government. Before its current problems, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), which adopted orange as its official colour, appeared like a threat to the government. One female minister is said to have thrown a temper tantrum when she arrived at a conference venue to find that the PR staff had decorated the high tables with orange flowers.

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