Thursday, October 28, 2021

Redeployments at Mass Media Complex following Btv’s coverage of UDC rally

In the lead-up to a do-or-die general election during which the opposition has won virtually all bye-elections, during which opposition parties are banding together, during which the portrait of the opposition leader has featured below a “Your Next President” banner headline in a newspaper and during which a parade of evangelical prophets have predicted an imminent opposition take-over, the government has every reason to be worried. Such worry reached crisis levels last weekend when the last hold-out ÔÇô the Botswana Congress Party ÔÇô was welcomed into the opposition collective of the Umbrella for Democratic Change. Then followed a political rally at Rasesa to launch the new-look UDC. Atypically, Botswana Television (Btv) covered the event, not for reasons of political patronage but because this was the number one news item of the week. When the story was broadcast in the evening, some very senior officials at the Office of the President (OP) began shaking in their boots. According to government sources, these officials convened an emergency single-item meeting at OP the following day that went on for hours. We have no way of knowing what the resolution of that meeting was but events of last Wednesday at the Mass Media Complex (the government’s broadcast centre that houses Btv and Radio Botswana) give a very good indication of what may have been discussed. Btv’s news editor, Edison Malebane ÔÇô who would have played a major part in the UDC launch assignment ÔÇô and there is a rumour that he is likely to be redeployed. For now, two old hands have been brought in to work closely with him. One is Thebeyame Ramoroka who all along has been the Botswana Daily News editor and in the past has hosted the Matlho-a-Phage talk show on Btv. The other is Mmoloki Mothibi (commonly known as “Smallboy”) who has been transferred from Radio Botswana. Our information is that the instruction for these redeployments came directly from OP and went into effect immediately.  The redeployments come after a Court of Appeal case exposed the shenanigans of Mass Media management. In the matter at hand, a Btv producer, Joshua Ntopolelang, was redeployed from a highly sensitive news section because, as his affidavit states, management was unsure of his political allegiance. This was in 2014, an election year in which the powers-that-be needed to be absolutely certain that those in charge of news packaging and dissemination at Btv could be trusted to favour the ruling party. On being transferred to the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources (which has been renamed the Ministry of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security), Ntopolelang successfully appealed that decision at the Industrial Court. He was then redeployed to the Programmes Section, a development he was also unhappy about and challenged through the courts. The CoA overturned a High Court decision that found nothing wrong with Ntopolelang’s redeployment. What is most significant about the CoA case is the admission of Ntopolelang’s averments as fact and that there is no court that can overturn this judgement. What the court record now shows as fact is that far from being a news organisation, Btv is actually a propaganda delivery machine that is controlled not from Mass Media itself but OP. A Mass Media director, Lesole Obonye, told Ntopolelang that senior government officials could not entrust him with a politically sensitive position in an election year when they didn’t trust him. As used, that trust is extra-journalistic because it places political allegiance over journalistic ethics. Obonye’s assertions will bring a spotlight on the sort of journalism that Ramoroka has been practicing as theBotswana Daily News editor. Last November, when Ramoroka was still in that post, the Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, asked a question about the paper’s editorial policy with regard to covering opposition parties. The MP sought to know “if it is the editorial policy of the Daily News not to feature politicians from opposition parties on the front page; to state the number of times the following were featured in the front pages of the periodical in the last six months in respect of their two positions as is applicable: the President of the Republic and Botswana Democratic Party; the Vice President of the Republic and Chairman of BDP; the Leader of Opposition and President of Umbrella for Democratic Change; President of Botswana Congress Party; and Opposition Members of Parliament.” An honest answer would have been embarrassing to the government because opposition leaders are never featured on the front page of theDaily News. The Minister of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Eric Molale, sought refuge behind a standing order that says that MPs should undertake own research for information that is in the public domain. With regard to the first part of the question, Molale stated: “The most important story of the day informs what appears on the front page of any newspaper including the Daily News. Therefore, that is what partly informs the editorial policy of any newspaper and not necessarily content from opposition parties or any other party for that matter.” Gaborone Central MP, Dr. Phenyo Butale, tackled the minister on this last point, asking a question that cut too close to the bone: “So, are you saying to us that in your world, all the time what is newsworthy is President Khama, yourself and Minister [Thapelo] Olopeng? Is that the only thing that qualifies to be newsworthy?” The sarcasm made it possible for Molale to evade the question with his own sarcasm: “I note the consistency with which Honourable Butale has raised this matter. I am not that much worried about it. It is just that I need to refer him to the adage that, ‘consistency is the mark of a small mind.’” As Daily News editor, Ramoroka gave the ruling party prominence and the “elders” that Obonye refers to in Ntopolelang’s affidavit will be counting on him to repeat that feat. One cannot really blame him for understanding and playing by the ground rules: it is either that or redeployment. Opposition parties have complained about this bias, even going as far as to petition Molale. When Keorapetse asked what was being done about this petition, the minister gave a response that opposition MPs felt was not too helpful. “Indeed I have received a petition from the opposition parties, that is the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) against the alleged biasness of Botswana Television in its editorial policy. I have noted the petition and the contents therein. I thank you Madam Speaker,” said Molale, later reiterating the statement in various forms.

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