Sunday, April 5, 2020

The public face of the media prepares to call it a day

It’s ironic that one of the most recognizable faces in Botswana media does not belong to a practitioner of the trade. Instead, it belongs to a former teacher, who later branched off into human resource management.

Over the past decade, Modise Maphanyane has loomed large on the national stage as the spokesman-in-chief for media freedom and pluralism. What’s been unknown to those outside media circles is that he landed the job that catapulted him to the public sphere almost by chance. The Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, better known by the acronym MISA (Botswana), was locked in power struggle between the outgoing board of directors and a newly elected one. Members of the old board later broke away to found the Botswana Media Consultative Council (BMCC). In protest ÔÇô some would say in sympathy with, and support of, the old leadership ÔÇô MISA (Botswana)’s executive director Chibua Ntsimanyana resigned.

Maphanyane, on the other hand, had just left a good job at Sowa, and was at the early stages of setting up a consultancy in town. He was brought in to stabilise the daily operations of the organisation while the board searched for a new executive director, but he would hold the fort for 10 years.

This is how he remembers his first days in office: “There was no cohesion, no handover, and no resources, except a grant from SIDA which was for a project we were doing. We were not known, and we were not supported. We were not viewed as people to interact with, and government was antagonistic.”

When he fast-forwards to the present, he paints the picture of an organisation that has managed to change public perception and, in the process, won over critical allies who now spread the message that MISA is not an enemy of Botswana’s national interest. He notices more acceptance of the media’s role in entrenching a culture of democracy. Perhaps even more exciting is the respect that the private media commands in many quarters as a partner in development. Such is the maturity of the media and its advocacy arm that today Maphanyane is overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of invitations to interact with various formations of society. His secret to turning around the perceptions ÔÇô both in government and the general public ÔÇô was to raise his voice firmly, but fairly.

“I slowly spoke with government officials, and became the face of MISA that was difficult to dismiss…. My personality has been never to besmirch people in government. If I said something strongly, then it needed to be said. With the coming of private radio stations, we could say things in a language that Batswana understood, and they began to see that we were not unpatriotic,” he says. “We have been accused by both ruling party and opposition because they realised that MISA is not in their camps, and it was pleasing. Even Ramsay, an ex vice chairperson of MISA, has criticized us.”
The Ramsay being referred to is, of course, Jeff ÔÇô coordinator of the newly formed Government Information and Communications Unit, who also doubles as President Festus Mogae’s press secretary. As Maphanyane recalls, Ramsay, then principal of Legae Academy, was one of the leading lights of BMCC at its creation.

One particular exchange was over a dress ÔÇô a red dress! It turned out that the then MISA chairperson, Amilia Malebane, was invited to MC at a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) fundraising dinner in Francistown. She turned up in a red dress ÔÇô and her board, literally, saw red. As head of an apolitical organisation, it was an affront for its chair to appear at a party political function in party colours, her colleagues reasoned. In the midst of the exchanges, Ramsay dispatched a note in his paper ÔÇô Tautona Times ÔÇô in which he wondered at the apparent hypocrisy of MISA given that Maphanyane himself had at one time honoured an invitation to be guest speaker at a conference of the Botswana Congress Party.
Maphanyane is still angry at what he perceives to have been Ramsay’s mischief.

“Jeff Ramsay is a rubble-rouser, and you can write that. Our concern had nothing to do with our chairperson being there; our concern was she was dressed not different from the party… She was not riled for going there as an event manager, and Jeff knows that. He deliberately misrepresented our position to suit his agenda and I detest that because he knows better,” he says.

On the other hand, he defends his appearance at the BCP congress as the action of a citizen and a civil society activist who is concerned about the growth of democracy in Botswana. He explains that he used the platform to challenge the party on a number of important national issues, such as the pronouncement of some BCP leaders that Vision 2016 was a BDP thing.

Either as testimony of the thawing of relations between government and the media, or just mutual acceptance and respect, last month President Mogae accepted an invitation to be guest of honour at MISA’s annual gala dinner. In a speech delivered at the dinner, Mogae mentioned the growth of the media industry as one of the highlights of his presidency. He repeated the sentiments in his State of the Nation Address earlier this month. That the president should sound as if he is assuming credit for the media’s growth is something Maphanyane finds puzzling.

In his view, tribute ÔÇô if any ÔÇô should go to organisations such as MISA, which lobbied tirelessly for a media-friendly environment, including licensing of independent radio stations and the enactment of a freedom of information legislation (which Mogae has consistently refused to bequeath to the nation as a legacy of his presidency). He recalls that when Mogae was coming into office, the space of public discourse was shrinking, as the former leader of the opposition Michael Dingake described it, and the new national leader seemed a willing accomplice in the threat of a terror campaign against media freedom.

“At the time Mogae was taking over, the space was getting smaller and we fought hard to extend that space. We were prying the doors open, and it wasn’t easy. It was during his presidency that government withdrew survival of two of the major newspapers in this country. For the first time in our history, we saw a government wanting to strangle and kill a small media enterprise, and alas, today they take credit for the development of the media. While he claims credit, we will remind him of the autocracy…that denied advertising to newspapers simply because they were critical. I am glad we stayed the course because had we given in, they would have nothing to be proud of,” Maphanyane says.

At another level, Maphanyane challenges the president’s interpretation of what has occurred in the media industry over the past decade. While Mogae talks of growth in terms of new titles, Maphanyane counters that the growth has been quantitative, and not qualitative. He struggles to think of a single media enterprise that has grown to be able to retain qualified, experienced staff.

“Mrs. (Clara) Olsen (managing editor of The Gazette) says they are simply surviving… Even Dikgang (publishers of Mmegi, and The Monitor) is struggling because it has to be lean. A lot of people are looking for Public Relations positions elsewhere. The media enterprises are surviving from hand to mouth, especially with a government that believes that the private media is an anathema that can’t be supported like the construction industry, which was thrown a lifeline. We are made to compete (for advertising) with government through Daily News. MISA suffers and dies and wins with these people,” he says.

No one had forewarned him that advocacy was a 24-hours-a-day job. You might be preparing to knock off when a call comes through that a new anti-press law was being put together. Or that a media house had been threatened with a lawsuit. You might be shooting the breeze with friends on a weekend when word reaches you that a minister had made a statement that threatened press freedom. Or a foreign journalist had been deported. In all instances, the expectation was for one to drop whatever they were doing, and start ringing alarm bells. He makes the point that he never used to look forward to Fridays and long weekends because something that needed urgent attention always seemed to happen on those days.

With a staff complement that comprised a secretary/office administrator and a part-time media liaison officer, the director had to be all things all at once ÔÇô fundraiser, advocacy person, lawyer, counselor, whistleblower, and driver; all this for a pittance, in comparison to his previous perks, which included a company vehicle that came with a fuel voucher.

“Fortunately, coming here I was already mature. My ambition was not personal gratification. I was not coming for the money…. I didn’t see MISA as a steppingstone to anything. I have suffered (in this post). My vehicle was used solely for MISA benefit for four years,” he says.

Without hesitation, he declares that the personal sacrifice and anguish of the past 10 years have been worth it.
“Having had the education that was partly sponsored by the state and partly by my parents, I (always) want to give back to society and this position has given me that privilege, irrespective of criticism that comes with it, and being viewed as a permanent critic of government and rubble rouser… I hope it will continue to be seen as a public calling, not a steppingstone to higher office. It gives you sleepless nights, but it did not whittle my belief on the principles of the Windhoek Declaration (on which MISA is founded)…I was glad to have a family and wife that are very supportive… I don’t think I would have taken the pressures and sacrificed this much without the support of family and board,” he points out.

He steps down at the end of his current contract in March. He insists that he leaves without regrets, happy to have run his part of the race, and even happier to hand over the baton to someone who will continue to push back the frontiers of freedom of expression so that ordinary citizens are inspired to demand their social, economic and political rights.

“I have enjoyed every bit of my work (at MISA). I have attracted no residual benefit, but I have no regret. I was a bit underpaid, but that is not what I was looking for. I enjoyed it all ÔÇô the good and the bad,” he says.