As was to be expected, the publishing of the Media Practitioners Bill by the Minister of Communications has elicited a heated and somewhat irrational as to be headless public debate.
On the one side are those who hold strong views that it’s high time somebody stood up to control and regulate the media.
On the other side are those who hold equally strong views that it would be a travesty on the part of government to come up with laws that will effectively silence the media.
Proponents of government intervention argue that its high time journalists are treated the same way one would treat other professionals like, say, lawyers, doctors, nurses, etc.
They further argue that if it is not possible for a person who has not been to a law school to become a lawyer, how then is it possible to have a person who has never been to a journalism school to become a journalist?
If it is not possible to have a person who has never been to a medical school to become a doctor, how then is it possible to get a person who has never set a foot inside a journalism school to call themselves a journalist?
Wrongheaded as they are, all these arguments are not without merit.
Our view, however, has always been that it would be a mistake to treat journalism as a profession in the strict terms of the word as, say, law and or medicine.
The world over, journalism is looked at and categorized as a craft rather than a profession.
It is exactly because of those reasons that in many countries, the best journalists are people who would not have gone to journalism school, but rather people who would have trained as lawyers, historians, economists, sociologists, etc.
While a journalism graduate will never be admitted to practice as a lawyer (however strong their passion for law) it would be wrongheaded to bar a trained lawyer from practicing as a journalist on the grounds that they have never been to a journalism school.
This, again, is because journalism is a craft, not a profession.
It would be crazy if we were to wake up one morning and start barring people from becoming politicians on the grounds that they have not graduated from political science, sociology or any other such related disciplines.
In fact, were such a fast rule to be applied, one wonders how many of our current crop of MPs and cabinet ministers would make the mark.
One discerns a feeling among people arguing for government regulation as a specific group who, in one way or another, would have been wronged by the media in the past.
Because of their experiences with the media, they have made up their opinion that somehow journalists are an untrained lot who have to be regulated as to be taught proper skills not just of their trade but also of general etiquette.
This is unfortunate. The saddest part of it all is that the journalists have themselves contributed immensely to this public antipathy against their trade.
The reality on the ground is that many of the newsrooms in Botswana actually boast of journalists with diplomas and degrees (if that is what critics want). In fact, it is not uncommon nowadays to see a practicing journalist in possession of a post graduate qualification.
So the argument should steer clear from academic qualifications, and focus on how best to mould a media establishment that would serve the developmental vision of this country.
By its very nature, the job of a journalist places him or her at loggerheads with the authorities.
Journalists have to be skeptical, inquisitive and detached.
One wonders how on earth they could be so if they owe their existence to a minister of state.
Our position is that the situation that obtains now, of self regulation, should be enhanced and be maintained.
We believe that the Press Council as currently constituted under self regulation is the best way to build a robust, effective, and responsible media.
We think giving the Minister powers to appoint the Council and the Complaints Committee would bring about a credibility crisis on the media.
Past experience where ministers have been appointing authorities of Boards of Directors is not very inspiring.
That should not be extended to the media.
In the meantime, we call on the Minister to be cool headed and continue engaging the media on the way forward.