Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Will Masisi be fair to the media or continue Khama’s war against it?

Within the first 30 minutes of his presidency, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, who has never hidden his disdain for the private press, declared war on it when he announced his 4Ds roadmap. Of all the things that he could have said about the media, especially its role in a democracy, he instead chose to speak about its deficiencies when explained one of the Ds ÔÇô discipline.

“Allow me to highlight some of the social problems in our society that we need to address as a nation,” Khama said in his April 1, 2008 inauguration speech. “These range from alcohol abuse, reckless driving on our roads, disrespect for elders, vandalising of school property, wastage of scarce resources such as water, the use of abusive language in public discourse and defamation, slander and false statements in the media. The examples I have cited reflect a lack of discipline by some sections of our community.”

Khama clearly saw the media as an enemy that had to be dealt with as such. That explains why from the toolkit of offensive military strategies, he adapted and deployed the blockade or siege strategy in his war with the media. In terms of this strategy, the aggressive party cuts off food, supplies, war material or communications. Newspapers survive on advertising revenue and in Botswana where the government is the largest consumer of services and products, it is near impossible for a newspaper to survive without government advertising. Khama didn’t cut off advertising revenue completely but so severely rationed it that newspapers are struggling to survive and some have had to retrench staff. Collateral damage in this war has been in the form of those who are financially dependent on newspaper employees. The latter include parents and children of those employees.

It is difficult to say with absolute certainty whether the incoming president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, will continue this war because he has sent mixed signals. Making his very last response to the budget speech in parliament, Masisi acknowledged the important role that the media plays in society, notably as a delivery channel for the message from politicians.

“We cannot carry out our message without the support of the members of the media,” the Vice President said in parliament last week. “I know that there are times when we have differences of opinion, which is normal and healthy. In any relationship, these must be allowed to play themselves out in the interest of generating a conclusion out of that difference of view.”

He added that such differences must not deter political leaders to acknowledge the important work that the media does. No Botswana president has spoken like that in the past 10 years which gives hope that Masisi may see the media as an important component of a democratic society and end the war that his boss started. Or not.

In 2016, Sunday Standard reported a story about how the same Masisi implored businesspeople meeting at a farm in Notwane just outside Gaborone to starve private newspapers of advertising. One possible explanation is that he was merely following orders from his boss, a former Botswana Defence Force commander. Another is that he genuinely believed that the media should be cowed through the blockage strategy. Only time (and actions) will tell what the incoming president really thinks about the press.

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