Thursday, October 5, 2023

The media should look at itself in the mirror

Recently the columns of the print media and the airwaves have been inundated with criticism of the party over statements made by the President of the Botswana National Front (BNF), Cde Duma Boko at the party’s Special Congress in Mahalapye. Prior to the Mahalapye Congress, during a press conference held to respond to some negative reportage in some sections of the media, one journalist who we elect not to name for now, caused commotion while I was still answering a question from another scribe. I warned him that if he continues to cause commotion while we were still answering another journalist we will throw him out.

This incident was blown out of context and an impression created that we were issuing threats unprovoked. Regrettably what led to this situation and his misbehavior were deliberately not mentioned in the press.

For starters, reporters like everyone else who ends up at a press conference should behave in such a way that allows for an orderly flow of information and not cause any disturbances. There has to be respect for those who are hosting the press conference and of course the journalists as well. Those who stand on the way for free flow of information and exchange will be a hindrance and will have to be made to leave so that order and sanity prevails.

“This media is in many respects a disgrace to the ethos of free speech and the ethics of journalism. They are fickle, malleable and highly purchasable… The media fails in its role of watchdog if it reports untruths, deliberate falsehoods and misconceptions. The lack of professional training in most media houses is all too evident. This weakens our democracy and fails to energise the electorate to take part in informed political discourse…

Unfortunately, the media in this country behaves in a manner that lends some air of credence to the incipient hostility of the ruling BDP to freedom of information. The media in Botswana is its own worst enemy and it must redeem itself if it is to earn the sympathies of the ordinary people…” said Cde Boko in his address.

This was a criticism of a tendency within the media which we had expected the media to look at carefully and see what steps it can put in place to correct itself. It was feedback from a partner and consumer of its product, a partner and consumer who has benefitted from media criticism and is willing to continue receiving constant objective criticism from it, a partner who has a right as well to objectively criticise the media, a partner who has a history of fighting from the same corner as the media for civil liberties, human rights, press freedom and democracy.

But the response did not appreciate all these. It was like the BNF president had crossed the line and some within the media threw tantrums. It opened a flood of attacks from newsrooms, suggesting that only the media has monopoly to openly criticise other actors in society. The right to criticize it appears is theirs and theirs only and anyone who dares criticise them will be rebuked. This has the potential to instill fear in the nation and turn the media into a monster and create the impression that it is infallible.

Quite ironic because the media criticises other actors openly in the airwaves and their newspaper columns. They have and continue to call for openness and transparency but when they commit mistakes they say they should be “pulled aside and talked to in private”, that is if I fully understood the MISA Botswana Executive Director, Rre Phenyo Butale’s comments recently when responding to Cde Boko’s observations about the media. But the reality is that being receptive to feedback will allow the media to grow and be relevant.

This to us was an honest and constructive criticism of the media, which is located at the heart of our democracy. The media exists amongst others to educate and inform the nation. It sets the national agenda and is a powerful tool that has to carry out its mandate in a responsible manner. Members of the public watch and listen to the TV and Radio, buy and read newspapers because they are constantly in need of information, which they expect and believe to be truthful.

Journalists, therefore, have a huge responsibility of ensuring that what is fed to the public is truthful, fair, balanced and devoid of any malice. If this is maintained, the media will earn the trust and confidence of the nation. It will effectively play its watchdog role. The individual media houses might belong to their shareholders, but the media as an institution belongs to the society.

Whatever it does should be for the public good and not to serve sectarian and personal interests. Where it serves sectarian interests it should communicate this to the public. The media is the eyes and the ears of the society. It provides a voice to the voiceless and keeps the three arms of government in check by occasionally writing and providing a platform to review and criticise their actions and decisions. The question that then follows is, is the media above criticism? To us the answer is NO. Fair and objective criticism is necessary in a Democracy.

At the BNF we believe in media freedom and in the preamble of our constitution we commit ourselves “to struggle for genuine democracy, economic independence and social justice, human rights and peace.” We committed ourselves as far back as in 1995 in our basic document, the Social Democratic Programme to the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act once we assume state power. The status quo still remains. It will probably help to jog our collective memory as to the history of the BNF struggle for basic human rights, civil rights and press freedom.

When the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) dominated national assembly pushed through the Media Practitioners Bill which is now an Act, our Members of Parliament walked out in protest because the Act wants to do away with self-regulation and is repressive and authoritarian. We have spoken out against some sections of the DCEC Act and the National Security Act which we believe are inimical to a conducive working environment for media workers. All these three Acts want to criminalise “transgressions” in the media, an approach which we are vehemently opposed to.

Where we believe the media is under threat, we will act to protect its integrity regardless of who the perpetrators are, “practitioners” included. The Botswana Press Council has set standards and ethics which we expect all the journalists to abide by. Though these set of ethics need to be revised to protect the nation from some journalists who veer off the rails, they should be respected as they are now. The Media as an industry has struggled with limited government assistance and continues to play an important role in enhancing our Democracy. Efforts have to be made to ensure that these achievements do not come to naught by not allowing other actors in society to criticise the Media. The media should accept the notion that it might not be perfect.

The hubris in the media is alarming. Some brag that they can make or break individuals. To us this is not the duty of the media. People should not be made to believe that the media is all about finding fault and bringing people down, it should go beyond this. Recklessness on the part of the media can over a period of time create innuendo and unduly affect other members of society who are victims of such practice adversely.

The media should honestly and openly engage with criticism of the media by the BNF president and introspect; some sections of the media are shouting press freedom and saying that the opposition will put them behind bars the moment it takes over. This is unfair and unjustified. The media hates criticism so much that you can hardly find one media house criticising another.

We do not believe the media is without mistakes. As one put it recently, “the media must be the only business where the manager or owner routinely tells the customer they are wrong or stupid when they complain about the service they buy”. The issue therefore should not be about whether the BNF feels it is being wronged, but about the good of the profession. The attitude displayed by some practitioners is by far a threat to the media than the way the criticism was communicated. The most important thing for the media is to fight for credibility so that the society does not lose trust and confidence in it. If the society loses confidence and trust in the media then our Democracy will be severely threatened.

To quote from what Spencer Mogapi, a seasoned journalist said once, in his column, The Watchdog, “Obviously, they have to talk to and engage politicians but the journalists should remain outsiders if they are to be worthy trusting. Otherwise they lose whatever little credibility they have. The stakes are higher in Botswana where the majority of citizens trust the government officials than they trust journalists”. We agree with him when he also said that “… media should never forget that in the elementary scheme of things journalists are not supposed to become political players”. Some journalists in this country sit in the newsrooms to further and protect the interests of their political parties.

It is well known in journalism circles that one journalist from one of the national newspapers who is based in Francistown ran around, cap in hand, pleading with colleagues in other publications not to write about a nasty incident that took place in the Francistown City Council involving a BCP councillor. He said this had the potential to embarrass the councillor and his party.

What business does this journalist have in protecting the image of this party? He is the same journalist who will not hesitate to do anything to enhance the image of his party at the expense of the Umbrella and its constituent parties. Such journalists are therefore not worthy of any trust and are a disgrace to the profession. This is one of the many incidents which show that some journalists are biased. These types of journalists conveniently hide behind press freedom.

If the Industry keeps on protecting these individuals, then they will bring it down with them. These individuals have “become too enmeshed in the running of political parties so much so that newsrooms have become extensions of some political parties. Journalists should never struggle to be insiders. Journalists are not politicians, and they should not try to become so. It’s a pity how in Botswana journalists are struggling too hard to be seen to belong”, said Spencer Mogapi. We should commend Rre Mogapi for conceding that there are some weaknesses. It is this type of attitude which will help the Media grow and earn the trust of society. If you fail to accept your weaknesses you will kill the Industry and stunt the growth of our Democracy.

Instead of directing unwarranted criticism at Cde Boko, the Media should rid itself of these tendencies. Some of you are bringing the Industry down.

As the BNF we will be engaging the Editors’ Forum and MISA Botswana with a view to seeing how we can positively contribute to the growth of the Media in the country.

*Moeti Mohwasa is the BNF Information and Publicity Secretary.


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