50 years of defending and promoting democracy

Peter Olsen reflects on 50 years of the Media in Botswana. He has been Chairperson of News Company Botswana, publishers of The Botswana Gazette since 1986 when the late Clara Keanole Olsen bought a controlling share in the company. Peter has a background in journalism and was the Deputy Editor of the Daily News and Kutlwano in the late 1960s.
The early history of the Media in Botswana was dominated by the government which controlled the print media through the Daily News and Kutlwano, and the broadcast media through Radio Botswana.
Although Mmegi was the first community newspaper to be established in the 1970s, the first purely commercial paper was the short lived Economist founded by a former Director of Information and Broadcasting.
The 1980s heralded the serious entry of the private media with the resurgence of Mmegi, the founding of the Botswana Guardian, and in 1985, the establishment of the Botswana Gazette by veteran Malawian journalist Al Osman, the owner of Capital Radio in Malawi.
The private media grew slowly in the 1990s, but exploded in the early 21st century with more than a dozen new publications such as Sunday Standard, Weekend Post, The Patriot and the Business Weekly.
Government’s control over the airwaves has also been broken with the establishment of three private radio stations competing with RB1 and RB2.
Although some publications may have been established to promote a political agenda, they are also competing in a commercial environment. Until the downturn in the economy, print media circulation had been growing steadily but in the past three years, the downturn in the economy has hit both circulation and advertising revenues and some of the titles may not survive.
A free and independent media is one of the cornerstones of democratic societies and it is not without reason that the media is often referred to as the Fourth Estate – an essential cornerstone – to hold the state to account for its actions, and for the right of the public to access information.
So after 50 years how is the media fairing? Is it playing an important role in promoting democracy in Botswana?
The answer is a definitive yes. The proliferation of titles and the expansion of broadcast media is indicative of a strong, and relatively healthy private media which continues to aggressively hold Government to account for its actions.
Although the promise of a Freedom of Information Act in the expired Vision 2016 never came to fruition, and the media faces continual assault by state agencies such as the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services, it is alive and well.
In the early days of Independence not only was there no private media but even the state media was tightly controlled and censored.
Although the Government may wish to re-live those days when it could totally control access to information, private media has become entrenched and its growth is a testament to Botswana developing democratic principles. Perhaps more than diamonds, the private media can be heralded as one of Botswana’s more lasting gems of the last 50 years.
However, the Media has to remain vigilant and editors and publishers can expect to continue to be harassed and pressurised to self-censor content which reveals illegal, corrupt and undemocratic activities by the state, and indeed the private sector, to retain personal power and wealth.
The late Clara Olsen set out what she saw as the role of the Media in Botswana in promoting democracy, human rights and free markets.
Her most fundamental tenet was, and remains, the obligation of the media to report accurately, objectively and fairly.  These words are in themselves open to interpretation and subjectivity. However, accurately means truthfully; journalists should never knowingly report anything they are aware is untrue; objectively means providing a balanced report, with the inherent obligation to report on all sides of a story, and the right of people cited in stories to respond to any allegations.   Fairly means the media should not seek to destroy or besmirch the names of individuals with intent or to sensationalise stories.
This does not mean that the media should shy away from controversy, or from investigating allegations of wrongdoing wherever these may occur. However, what the principles mean is that the media has a role higher than circulation and profitability, and is governed by a code of ethics which were articulated by Clara in her contributions to MISA, the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
If the media diverts too far from these principles, then it will become the agent of its own downfall. It will no longer be trusted by the public; and will also give the State cause to clamp down on publications on the grounds that it is irresponsible.
Many of today’s editors and journalists served their apprenticeships at The Gazette under the tutelage of Clara Olsen. It is testament to her drive to develop and promote a healthy media to defend and support Botswana’s democracy that these former Gazette journalists have been able to start their own publications.
While some publications challenge the boundaries of good taste, and sensationalism is the driving force behind some titles, Botswana can be proud of its journalistic standards and adherence to the code and standards of reporting that Clara fought so hard to entrench.
When the history of Botswana’s first half century of Independence is written, the development and role of the Media in defending and promoting democracy, human rights, the free market and accountability must take centre stage.