Thousands of voiceless Batswana who were hoping that the country’s growing media will finally give them a voice have been dealt a blow by the new Communications Regulatory Act.
University of Botswana law lecturer, Dr Tachilisa Balule, says although Botswana’s old broadcasting Act of 1998 was deficient, the new Communications Regulatory Authority Act of 2012 has shrank the space for operating a radio and Television. In a comprehensive journal article published by Oxford University Press earlier this year, Balule argues that the Communications and Regulatory Act passed by Parliament last year has severely compromised diversity and pluralism in Botswana’s broadcasting sector.
According to the paper, media diversity necessitates that there be different communications platforms to allow the public to benefit and for instance, access various radio stations.
Balule argues that a failure to provide for public and community broadcasters violates the citizenry’s constitutional rights to access information without obstacle. He says that the country’s constitution imposes a duty on government to promote diversity and pluralism within the press to enable Batswana to exercise their right to freedom of expression.
Under the old Act, the law permitted the running of commercial broadcasters, community, and public service broadcasters. However, even before it was repealed no community broadcaster was ever licenced because government’s position is that community radio stations might fuel tribalism.
Balule says this arrangement catered for the informational need of a diverse audience.
So far, Botswana has public Service broadcasters RB1, RB2 as well as Btv.
“While the broadcasting Act 1998 was favourable to the promotion of plurality of broadcast outlets, in practice, it failed to achieve that,” opines Balule.
Balule says that by settling for a two tier system of public broadcasters instead of the three tier system, like in the repealed Act, the new broadcasting law was tighter.
“The exclusion of community and public service broadcasting is regrettable considering the potential that these two have in contributing to the dissemination of a wide range of content catering to the needs of different audiences. Community media work for the development of different sectors of a territorial, ethno-linguistic, or other community nature. They strive to promote the quality of life of their communities and contribute to the well-being of their members by sharing a community’s interests, challenges and concerns,” he argues.
Balule says with politicians stepping into news rooms at State broadcasters and businessman pushing for profit in commercial radio stations, the content of broadcasters has been compromised.
“The programming of public service broadcaster is driven by the public interest as it aims at serving the needs and interests of the public. A state broadcaster’s programming, on the other hand, is essentially driven by political interests and the government supervises it and has full control over its programming. In not providing for public service and community broadcasting, the broadcaster regulatory framework under the Communications Regulatory Authority Act 2012 will negatively affect diversity of media outlets and sources and diversity of content.” says Balule.
He further argues that in the failure to recognize community radio stations, the new law limits the right to freedom of expression of a ‘community as it denies it the opportunity to use whatever medium it deems appropriate to impart information and ideas’.
He says the new law is totally out of touch with international best practice, adding that a blanket ban on community radio stations for fear that it would incite tribalism is unjustifiable under any full functioning democracy.
Balule says that not helping the situation is that the new law fails to prevent emergence of monopolies in the media sector. He says the law is silent on the issue of media ownership and cross media ownership. He says he doubts whether the Competition Authority has the competence to handle issues of unfair competition within the media. He also faults the licencing procedure as unfair and the regulatory authority that he says is not independent.
“Botswana is often praised for being one of the few exemplary functioning democracies in the African continent. Democracy must be institutionalized and consolidated through promotion of universal values and principles as reflected in International norms and standards,” he said, adding that freedom of expression is one of those values considered to be a foundation stone for every free and democratic society.