Saturday, May 21, 2022

Press suppression that never happened alleged in Botswana

“Journalistic activity was also affected by COVID-19 measures. Under the EPA, Batswana were prohibited from using sources other than the government or the WHO,” claims Freedom House in its latest Freedom in the World Report, using the abbreviation for Emergency Powers Act. The misrepresentation of fact occurs at two levels.

Firstly, laws governing press coverage were drawn not from the EPA but the Emergency Powers Regulations which were promulgated on the basis of powers that the EPA confers on parliament and the executive. The EPA, which was promulgated way before there was Covid-19, doesn’t have the specificity that the EPR had. 

Secondly, the EPR provision that stipulated the prohibition in question, Section 30 (3), was never enforced. It provided that “any person who relays any information to the public about COVID-19 from a source other than the Director of Health Services, and the WHO commits an offence and is liable to a fine not exceeding P100 000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or to both.”

Resultantly, the EPR never affected press coverage in any way because it was never enforced. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MoHW) found itself having to issue press statements to rebut some of what was published in not just the mainstream but new media platforms. There were practical problems to deal with. While it would have been easy to take punitive action against mainstream media, it would have been near impossible to do the same with not just new-media but everybody else on social media who was publishing information on Covid-19.

Some in the latter category were not even in Botswana. “Any person” could mean someone in any part of the world who could post information relating to Botswana’s Covid-19 situation. The law implicitly imposed responsibility on MoHW to deal with press enquiries. However, until not too long ago, the Ministry’s public relations office was notorious for not responding to press enquiries.  On the whole, enforcement of the EPR was very weak and in the case of public health guidelines, that exacerbated the spread of the virus.

Two months after the Regulations were adopted by a special session of parliament, Sunday Standard published an article on how mask-wearing and social distancing were still being treated as a matter of choice by most people in the country, especially in rural areas. Freedom House pronounced Botswana to be “free” and awarded it a score of 72 percent. The falsehood that the report means that Botswana lost marks on press freedom when the particular suppression it alleges never happened.

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