Saturday, September 19, 2020

What constitutes ‘News’ in State Media?

Breaking news is any story that is big enough to warrant the interruption of normal programming in a broadcaster.
In a newspaper, it can necessitate what is called ‘stop press’ when the printing press is literally stopped so a news item can be slotted at the last minute, or a printed edition is discarded and reprinted. Breaking news is how every journalist would have viewed news of the split of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, 44 years after it came to power, and just five months after a general election.
In cognisance of this huge, historic story, Botswana’s private media; radio stations and newspapers, have rightly been filling their airtime and pages with news of the BDP split.

It is a story too big to ignore. Now it truly boggles the mind that the state media comprising Botswana Television, Radio Botswana and the Daily News did not see any newsworthiness in this story.

We have not heard on the state electronic media or read in the state newspaper, news about the split from the ruling party by a faction called Barata- Phathi.

How could any news source fail to report about this historic event? Can any news editor live with their conscience if their bulletin consists of mundane everyday issues when a major story is breaking on their doorstep?
This was an omission of epic proportions.

As far as Radio Botswana, Botswana Television and the Daily News are concerned the story is not happening.
However there is a catch.

The story is not happening so long as it concerns the Barata Phathi version or viewpoint. The story is happening only when it relates to the BDP view.
I watched in dismay yesterday when a BDP spokesperson, Ms Tebelelo Seretse, was called to give the BDP side of the story on Btv, and no attempt was made to balance the story with representation from Barata -Phathi.
Were Baratha- Phathi not able to send a representative to give their side of the story?

If that were the case I would have expected the presenter to make a disclaimer that they were contacted and did not avail themselves. Since no disclaimer was made, I conclude that Barata-Phati were never contacted for comment.

Ms Seretse’s interview was the latest in a series of one sided stories from Btv on the BDP saga. It had initially carried a statement from the BDP denouncing a planned meeting of Barata – Phathi while no attempt was made to report on the meeting itself. This was a clear violation of one of the cardinal journalistic principles of balancing a story. Both sides of the story have to be presented and the viewer/reader can then make their own judgment.

This is not the first time state media have chosen to report one side of a story. There are many, but the Kalafatis killing comes to mind because it was also a huge story.

Then as now, Btv, Radio Botswana and the Daily News chose to report on the story only from the government’s point of view. I recall Radio Botswana and Btv news crews were at a news conference convened by Kalafatis lawyers to give their side of the story. But they never reported about the news conference. There was complete silence, a blackout.

Those who were not at the news conference only heard about it from the private press and electronic media. Those who rely only on national media for news never got to be informed about the news conference and, therefore, missed the ‘other’ view on the killing. Bagaetsho, this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I believe that any objective government or ruling party official does not think only the government’s viewpoint is news. What is wrong with Radio Botswana, Btv and the Daily News reporting both sides of a story?

In the current BDP story, the private print and electronic media are giving the BDP and Barathi Phathi space to air their views. For example, I have heard Dr Comma Serema and Mr Sidney Pilane slugging it out on Yarona FM and Gabz FM. Ordinary Batswana as well are given space to call in and air their views on these radio stations and naturally some support the BDP while some are on the Barata-Phati side. Brilliant stuff!

The interviews and listener inputs make me better informed about the issue and able to make an informed decision.
Now can somebody tell me what would be wrong with the BDP split story handled the very same way in state media?
The country’s strategy document Vision 2016 talks about an ‘informed nation’. My question is does the state media have no role in informing Batswana? Should the state media ‘inform’ Batswana only about the government’s side of a story?

The country prides itself in subscribing to democratic principles. However, is it democracy when Btv, Radio Botswana and the Daily News do not offer space for democratic debate?

Vision 2016 should not be an abstract, unattainable undertaking. Seemingly little things like a radio station opening up phone lines for people to air divergent views, and allowing Mr Pilane and Dr Serema to voice their opinions is walking the talk about democracy and an informed nation.

We cannot even start to talk about Vision 2016 if the national media cannot do those little things.

Finally, I can predict that someone somewhere reading this article is already labeling me anti-BDP, anti-government or anti-state media because I dared express a divergent view. (I learned from a lecturer that is called ‘ad hominem’, that is attacking the person rather than dealing with the real issue in dispute).

But before you do that, stop and first try to understand what I am saying. My question is: what is wrong with state media reporting on all major stories/issues affecting the country and balancing viewpoints even if those viewpoints don’t favour the government or ruling party? The key to solving a problem is acknowledging that there is a problem.

We all love this country. Nobody has a monopoly on patriotism.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.