Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Private media should look beyond government for sustenance

It’s not very difficult to discern a link between democracy and a free press.
Almost all the dictators I can immediately think of have not allowed the emergence or continuation of a free press in their countries; Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Russia, Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, Mao Zedong in China, the military junta in Burma, Al-Bashir in Sudan; the list is endless.

It has been the same in such countries as North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and many others.

Whatever journalism has been allowed to flourish in those countries, it has always been a kind that casts the government in good light, placing the head of government a little below God – that is if God was recognized at all.
For all its faults and flaws, Botswana has many traces of a true democracy.

Save when Government tried to use advertising to influence the editorial policy of the Botswana Guardian, there has not been an extensive form of government meddling and interference as seen in many other African countries.
The new Media Practitioners Act is a reprehensible aberration, the true effects of which we are still to feel.

Journalists are descendents of a very proud tribe that ranks its freedom and independence way above the comforts that come as part of good career.
As is common knowledge, journalists are some of the poorest professionals.
The reason is simple – there is no money to be made from journalism, unless, may be, if you happened to own a really successful outlet.

Poor as they are, journalists continue to treasure and pride themselves with their independence.

A vast majority of journalists I know take serious offence and umbrage on anything they perceive as encroaching on their independence.

Such journalists cherish their independence so much so that not even their editors can force them to distort facts simply because they happened to be senior in the newsroom.

There is no question that like any other business, the private media has to make profits for there to be any chances of survival.

There is always a danger that even a most liberal government (and ours is not) would want to hurt a newspaper simply because its line of reporting tends to embarrass the government.
In Botswana the situation is all the more difficult in that for almost every business to survive, it has to do business with government.

As has often happened in the past, this allows for a lot of room for rent-seeking on the side of government.
This naturally places unbearable strain on the private media, whose relationship with government in a democracy should, by definition, be adversarial.

Even in mature democracies like the United States the media always has to contend with the challenge of facing up to pressure from government to follow a certain line.

Such pressure comes up in many facets.
The most popular line is to appeal to the media’s instincts of patriotism.
The important thing is that the private media should never allow themselves to become henchmen of government, even if it means forfeiting ad revenue.

As a renowned South African media executive, Stephen Mulholland once put it, “good journalism equals good business simply because advertisers and readers want credibility and credibility comes from independence”.
Unfortunately, some sections of the private media in Botswana do not see it that way.

It would seem to me that they will be quite happy to give away their credibility in return for government adverts.

We should not forget that Botswana government gets acres of space and free time in its propaganda machinery.
Of course, nobody takes those seriously for they are taken for what they are ÔÇô non-independent; but that’s more the reason why the private media should remain independent.

This is not to say that credit should never be given to government even when it’s due.

But appointing ourselves cheerleaders and praise singers will do a great service to the very government some of us seem to be struggling to get close to.

After increasing their share of the popular vote by 1 percent, from 52 percent to 53 percent, the BDP is back in vogue, and media executives are falling over their knees to endorse it.
All of a sudden, the party is beyond reproach. It is a stump speech that those daring to criticise the party after so recent a victory can only be out of synch with the public aspirations. Their motives and patriotism are impugned at every corner.
I think that’s crazy.
Democracy is all about a diversity of ideas.

Even Barack Obama, who came to the United States Presidency on a much more popular and robust electoral ticket than our Khama, has never been in short of critics.

The private media may be out of touch with the public, but a disposition that cushions government from criticism will ultimately render such a government also out of touch with reality.
I doubt that is what our new converts want to see happen to their new found friends.

With the Media Practitioners Act, this Government has gone too far to allow itself control of the private media.
The last thing that we need is a band of media executives volunteering extra appeasement with the hope of getting government advertising in return.
In their hunger for government money, private newspapers should not allow themselves to sell their souls as to become government lapdogs.

After all, the Botswana Government has a lot of avenues through which it can churn out its propaganda, a task that, from now henceforth, will be proficiently discharged by state media that falls under the ambit of the presidency.


Read this week's paper

The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.