Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Questions linger over BOCRA code of conduct during elections

Key stakeholders have broken ranks with the Botswana Communication Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) after it issued a controversial code of conduct for broadcasters and media houses ahead of the 2014 general elections, slated for October. Observers believe clause 5.1 of the BOCRA code of conduct is contentious and open to abuse. The clause sates that: “no broadcaster shall permit party-political broadcasts under any circumstances except during an election period.” BOCRA goes on to explain that election period means the period immediately after the issuance of a writ of election until the declaration of results.

While he was loath to comment on the issue, as that would pre-empt his organization’s position paper on the code of conduct, MISA Botswana Director, Buyani Zongwani confirmed that some of the clauses are contentious and will have to be thrashed out with the relevant authorities.

“We intend to discuss the matter with BOCRA at the stakeholders meeting,” he said.

Political observers believe the clause will negatively affect political parties because they have no knowledge or control of when the said election period will come into effect.

They explained that the President is the only one who issues a writ of election and he does not consult with opposition parties as to when he will do that, such that the clause takes the fate of opposition parties and lays it on the hands of their opponent, President Khama.

“The opposition will never know when the President will issue a writ or when he will announce the date of elections. Therefore they have no control or influence on when the so called election period will come into effect. Therefore the clause is open to abuse,” they said.

The political observers believe the clause could only make sense if the date of election and issue of the election writ was entrenched in the constitution.

In the code of conduct, BOCRA also warned broadcasters not to give biased coverage in favor of Ministers, Members of Parliament or Councilors. It also states that in covering Ministers, Members of Parliament or Councilors, broadcasters should distinguish between their roles as elected officers and as election candidates.

“Broadcasting service licensees shall ensure that leaders of all contesting parties are given equal treatment in performance of their duties as representatives of their parties during coverage,” says BOCRA.

While broadcasters are barred from under any circumstances broadcasting any party political advertisement or political notices, BOCRA gives them permission to make announcements of schedules of meetings by different political parties. The code of conduct also states that if during election period the programming of any broadcaster extends to elections, political parties and political candidates and issues relevant thereto, the broadcaster shall provide reasonable opportunities for discussion of conflicting views and shall treat all political parties equitably.

“Broadcasters shall ensure that they are balanced and impartial in their reporting and that no political party or candidate shall be discriminated against in editorial programming or the granting of access to electronic media coverage,” says BOCRA.

The code of conduct also affords aggrieved candidates some reprieve, as it states that if in the event that unfair criticism is leveled against a political party or candidate during a particular program of any broadcaster, without such party or candidate having been afforded an opportunity to respond thereto in the same program or without the view or such political party or candidate being reflected therein, the broadcaster concerned shall afford such a political party or candidate a reasonable opportunity to reply to the criticism.

BOCRA also says efforts should be made to cover all candidates in a constituency in a fair and equitable manner. Another clause states that broadcasters should not present a random survey as scientific opinion poll.

“Where opinion polls are being used as part of coverage of an election, the details of the date of the poll, the commissioning entity, who conducted it and the number of people who polled must be provided on air,” says BOCRA.

Also, no election results may be broadcast unless they have been issued officially by the Returning Officer. During polling day, there shall be no discussion of the possible outcome of elections until after the polls have been declared closed.

Curiously, some of the clauses in the authority’s code of conduct are in sharp contrast to the ongoing parliamentary debates, covering all political parties and initiated by Gabz FM in collaboration with the US embassy. The debates were only shunned by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). However, Gabz FM Executive, Director Lesego Komanyane, who had earlier promised to comment on the matter, had not done so at the time of going to press.

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