Have we ever enjoyed Press Freedom?
While there has been much discussion about the decline of media freedom under the current administration it would appear, looking at media freedom from an historic perspective that the current attack on the media is merely a continuation of ongoing policies that have their roots in the colonial era.
The recent arrest of INK journalists, Joel Konopo, Ntibinyane A. Ntibinyane and Kaombona Kanani when they sought to investigate allegations that government personnel were involved in developing and undertaking improvements to the president’s private compound in Mosu has once again raised the spectre of press freedom in Botswana.
Media freedom, however central it may be to the development of democracy, was not the subject of scrutiny by either the local or international academia until the more recent intrusions into media freedom. Media freedom was assumed to exist under the veil of a liberal government, sound fiscal policies with due respect for the separation of power.
It was only 28 years into the post-independence period, in 1994 that the first conference on the role of media in a democracy, hosted and arranged by Mmegi Publishing Trust was held in Botswana. Yet even this conference focused mainly on providing the media institutions in Botswana with information on the laws that protected and threatened freedom of the media and not the larger role that the media played as a necessary bastion of democracy. Various subsequent conferences on the media have retained this format.
Post-independence infrastructural development came about largely as a necessary bi-product of economic growth due to diamond wealth and not solely or ultimately as a government driven policy. Thus whilst Botswana at independence had a population of approximately 475 000 (four hundred and seventy five thousand) it has continued (and continues), in spite of its economic wealth to have one of the highest disparities of household income distribution of in the world. As such despite Government’s laudable introduction of various policies in respect of health care, education and distribution of tribal land, little or no focus has been given either nationally or internationally to affirming fundamental rights in respect of the Media.
Academic articles by Drs. Sethunya Mosime and Letshwiti Tutwane illustrate that the post-independence policy changes on health and education have no commensurate development to those that govern the media. The administrative infrastructures and legal frameworks inherited from the colonial power, Great Britain have remained largely unchanged thereby facilitating the current curtailing of media freedom.
As in all instances with colonial governments, legislative, institutional and infrastructural control was geared to assert authoritarian governance over the colony. In the context of the Media and Freedom of Expression, the colonial power established both an official and unofficial regulatory framework under which the media and freedom of expression was controlled. Media that promoted nationalist ideals was supressed while “European” centric media was designed to promulgated colonial propaganda, propaganda to reinforce the validity of colonial control. At independence the government inherited both the official (legislative and institutional) and unofficial (control of content) infrastructures that could be used to both curb the growth of an independent media as well as to promote government dissemination of information.
During the 70’s and 80’s this “inheritance” was used by government within the media framework on grounds of “national security” to curtail journalistic freedom and curb the media. It was accepted as a practice both nationally and internationally given Botswana’s position as a frontline state and inherent vulnerability to an increasing aggressive South African regime, however even in such hostile environment, the use of Immigration legislation to deport Journalists in this era was disproportionately high.
The end of the Cold War and the fall of Apartheid South Africa, saw the resurgence in private media houses in Botswana, fulfilling the more traditional role of the 4th Estate as “guardians” of the political discourse to ensure that political figures were held accountable to democratic processes.
As a result of the private media resurgence in the early 90’s, corruption within government under the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) was extensively exposed to the public. Various exposés were made by the media on corruption scandals in respect of electoral fraud; the Mmusi/Koma electoral recount, land distribution to the members of the ruling party; Kabo Commission, housing allocations and financing at the Botswana Housing Corporation; Christie Commission and National Development Bank (NDB) loans to prominent politicians, including the then President Masire. In the latter case a list of debtors was leaked to the media following media revelations that NDB faced a 50% retrenchment in its work force due to its pending bankruptcy.
According to Gabriel Kuris in a publication for Princeton University the media revelations of corruption “contrasted sharply with Botswana’s international image as a beacon of good governance in a region troubled by economic mismanagement and state coercion”. government pushback on the media was immediate. Using both previously existing legislation, under the penal code provisions on sedition and the newly enacted “Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime Act”, foreign journalists were deported and local journalist “Prof.” Malema was arrested and detained twice, in 1991 and 1996.
The exposé of various corruption allegations and the subsequent government pushback marked an important negative turning point in journalistic freedoms. The justification of “national security” by government could no longer be viably used. The pretext now was that such exposés interfered with criminal investigations, was false or fell under some category of illegality. A mantra that has continued to be used to justify restrictions throughout the next 20 years culminating in the raids on the Sunday Standard, cyber-attacks on Mmegi, raid on The Botswana Gazette and arrest and detention Outsa Mokone, Edgar Tsimane, the arrest of The Gazette Managing Editor Shike Olsen, Editor Lawrence Seretse, Journalist Innocent Selatlhwa and Lawyer Joao Salbany in 2015 and INK journalists in 2017 to highlight but a few.
Government saw an opportunity post the attacks on New York on 9/11 and with the international focus, on anti- terrorism, “national security” now found greater justification than in the past, as a now internationally accepted method of warranting more restrictive interpretations of existing legislation and additionally as justification of the formation of an internal security agency in 2008- The Directorate on Intelligence and Security Services (DISS). A state security agency that has become synonymous with infringements against freedom of expression.
The period post 1998 have been marked by an escalation in the use of archaic legislation, such as sedition laws, government seeking to interdict publications, denial of information on grounds of the sub judice rule, national security, high court rules and more insidiously on “undisclosed grounds,” to curb media freedom and access to information.
The introduction of legislation, ostensibly designed to promote media freedom in the form of access to information has been repeatedly rejected by parliament, whereas such legislation in the form of the Media Practitioners Act and Whistle-Blowers Act are more concerned with governement controlling the media and leaked information than the protection of journalists.
The use of “national security” has been used by government to construe both the constitution and legislation narrowly in favour of a derogation of the separation of power and civil liberties, the introduction of legislation that has the potential to curb media freedom must be seen as a tool to be used by government in just such manner; a method of enforcement to curb media liberties.
Khama became President on the 1st April 2008, promising what he called the four “D’s” of “democracy, discipline, dignity, and development”. After the 2014 general elections, he added a fifth “D” for “delivery” however the 5 “D’s” have only been used insofar as they serve the current establishment and not the national good.
The intrusions by the executive, into the judiciary (using both the appointment and removal of judge’s processes), the increasing of cabinet numbers to exceed the back-bench within the legislature and the increasing use of the “national security” all point to the current decline in our country’s democracy.
The formation of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) in 2008 and the shift in policy that saw the transfer of oversight authority of the DISS and the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) from the Ministry of Justice Security and Defence to the Office of the President in 2012 and the use of the DISS against the media in the form of arrests of media practitioners, raids on media houses have become a means to curb investigations and prosecution of members of the ruling hierarchy.
It is estimated that no less than 16 journalists were so detained, arrested or deported during the period up to 1993, including Mxolisi Ace Mnxashe, Gwen Ansell, Charles Mogale, Rodrick Mukumbira, Charles Chirindi, Caesar Zvayi, John Mukela, Lefoko Mogapaesi, William Jones. Post 1993 to present, this number has continued to escalate. The important distinction however is the rationale and the method of government intrusion into freedom of expression, whereas in the past government may have had the pretext of legitimate concerns over national safety due to South African military incursions, the current administration now uses the suppression of the media to hide and obscure corruption.
International governance indicators have consistently rated Botswana well and continue to do so, what is evident however is the notable downward trend and recognition that there has been a sharp decline in the indices for Botswana, though still maintaining its overall rankings due to economic considerations. While the media in Botswana had in the past been given only cursory attention, thereby creating an enabling environment for increased media suppression, the current trends have garnered both national and international attention but such attention has failed to solicit a positive to drive from government to create legislation for the protection of the media and access to information.
The idea that the media has been free is a notion that needs to be disabused of, Botswana has not now nor in the past had a media free of government intrusion. The media in Botswana has neither been free of government interference nor regulatory control, in either an historic context or current environment, whereas in the past consideration could be given to government intrusion into the media due to external political influences and military pressure from apartheid South Africa, the current trend in supressing the media is geared at protecting political hegemony.
As World Press Freedom Day approaches, the time for rallying the local and international media in defence of one of the recognised pillars of democracy should find centre stage.