The International Press Institute (IPI) has said the independent media environment in Botswana faces key risks and challenges that require close monitoring.
In a new report following a three-day fact-finding visit to Botswana on August 22 to 24, the IPI global network found that Botswana’s government should affirm its stated commitment to press freedom by shoring up protections for independent journalism in the country.
“During our visit, the high-level IPI delegation, led by former IPI Executive Board Chair Markus Spillmann, met with journalists, civil society, government, and members of the diplomatic community,” the international media watchdog said.
The report says the goal of these meetings was to understand more about the media environment and the challenges that journalists in Botswana face in being able to do their work freely, independently, and safely.
“At the conclusion of these meetings, IPI finds that while there is space for critical media and independent journalism in Botswana, and while recent media law reforms have been seen positively by the media community,” the report says.
It says; “Further reforms and improvements are needed in order to strengthen the environment for press freedom and to ensure that all media in the country are able to operate free of political and government interference.”
Regarding Government’s control over public media, IPI said Botswana lacks a true public service media. Instead, IPI said, the country’s publicly owned media serve as a mouthpiece for the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
“Strong reforms are necessary in order to ensure the country’s public media can operate free of government and political inference, in accordance with international freedom of expression standards guaranteeing the public’s right to receive diverse and independent news and information,” IPI said.
Touching on misuse of government advertising, IPI said as in many media markets, private media in Botswana rely on advertising revenue for survival, including state-funded advertising, given the country’s small market.
“However, numerous stakeholders highlighted that publicly funded advertising in Botswana is misused as a tool of influence and control. The government should take concrete steps to enable fair market conditions for private media, including by ensuring that public advertising is allocated transparently and according to clear and objective criteria,” IPI said.
IPI said editors and journalists report an increase in strategic lawsuits against the media – or “SLAPPs” – aimed at draining independent outlets of vital resources. “These abusive lawsuits are brought against media outlets as a way of punishing and stifling critical journalism and have a deeply corrosive effect on press freedom,” said IPI in its findings.
Regarding the use of penal code against journalists, IPI expressed concern about the use of provisions in the criminal code, including sedition, to charge journalists for their reporting. “Botswana should work to bring its criminal laws in line with international standards on freedom of expression and ensure that journalists do not face criminal prosecution for their work,” IPI said.
IPI also found that editors and journalists report that police and intelligence agencies routinely seize reporters’ equipment — including mobile phones, cameras, and laptops — without any legal basis or a warrant.
“We are deeply concerned that these types of actions are a form of censorship, surveillance, and intimidation that pose undue restrictions on the press,” the organisation said.
Regarding expansive government intelligence apparatus and powers, IPI said, even after the government rolled back controversial provisions of the 2022 Criminal Procedures and Evidence Act that allowed for warrantless surveillance of journalists, stakeholders continue to voice credible concerns over the expansive and unchecked powers of the government’s intelligence agency, Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS), and the potential for government overreach and abuse.
“We remind the government of Botswana that a free, independent, and diverse media is essential to upholding a system of independent institutions and robust checks and balances,” IPI said.
The report states that; “We also recognize that establishing the ideal legal, regulatory, and market conditions that enable independent media to thrive is especially challenging in today’s media environment.”
IPI added that; “We also urge the international and diplomatic community to prioritize press freedom in Botswana, as a free, pluralistic, and independent media are essential for the country’s democracy and stability.”
In addition to former IPI Executive Board Chair Markus Spillmann, the IPI delegation was led by IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen, IPI Director of Advocacy Amy Brouillette, and IPI Africa Programme Manager Patience Zirima.