Independent Media: The custodian of transparency
Asking questions to hold elected officials accountable is a civic duty we all have as is directing the manner in which we want to be governed. We are not enemies of the state buy so-doing, we are simply answering the call in our national anthem to come together and work for Botswana.
Democratic modes of governance require state funded oversight institutions to address shortcomings in the public sector such as The Office of the Ombudsman and The Auditor General.
Apart from these the independent media is a pivotal structure in the furtherance of democracy and state accountability. A modern state should embrace and support scrutiny from the public via independent media and seek to build relationships based on truth and access to information. But the state and the independent media are forever embroiled in a tumultuous relationship.
Political scientist, Professor Masipula Sithole perhaps put it best when he said, “the media is the custodian of transparency in public affairs”. However this custodian is often vilified and subjected to intimidation by those elected to public office, especially in Africa. Typically African states operate public media houses laden with political interference which laud ruling parties as infallible bastions of good leadership, when often the opposite is true. Citizens are naturally forced to employ the private media for the goings on at government enclaves.
A few bold editors have found themselves behind bars after having exposed misgivings in the public sector. These intimidation tactics undermine the very freedoms democracy one wishes to develop. Historically governments enjoyed near monopolies in the media sector and some would even have military posts installed at radio and television broadcasting sites, such was the perceived power in controlling information and its dissemination. The world has changed however and the power which for long was the preserve of state machinery has been radically shifted into the hands of common citizens through a technological information revolution. Is there a winner and loser in this situation or is it a win-win scenario?
The rise of private media is fast invalidating state propaganda, changes need to happen at BTV, Radio Botswana and The Daily News, or these institutions will dwindle into insignificance but still cost tax payers a fortune to stay afloat. BTV News in particular is forever an exercise on reporting what someone said at one gathering or the other, the content is seldom newsworthy but there it is with nauseating monotony. Left to fight a battle in the open market without tax-payer propping would BTV survive with its current set-up? Perhaps the writing is on the wall, would it be such a bad idea to privatise these organisations and allow government more time to focus on governance? Information, especially news can neither be state directed nor state controlled.
Consequently the private media has had to take up the mettle and ask the uncomfortable questions the government cannot ask itself. The conflict that ensues though understandable should never result in the incarceration of scribes, after all legal remedies exist to punish arrant journalists who peddle falsehoods. If anything the government should celebrate the pressure to be accountable as this would really set it apart from other tittering democracies in the region. With this in mind an inclusive relationship is very necessary, it should never be viewed as a power struggle but rather a reciprocal arrangement which ultimately develops and protects society at large. The government owned Herald Newspaper I Zimbabwe, carried a farcical supplement on Grace Mugabe’s birthday, celebrating her as “the woman who conquered Africa”. The editor ran out of superlatives, describing her as an astute business-woman and gifted politician cum-academic. If you didn’t know, this intellectual powerhouse attained a doctoral qualification in record time, five months no less!
As Botswana readies herself to celebrate fifty years of Independence Vice-President Masisi was right to ask the nation to evaluate itself, introspection if you will, and determine where we should and more importantly how we should get there. This and future governments should also reserve some time for introspection and in particular their relationships with oversight institutions including the media. The importance of this relationship shot to prominence in South Africa after the Nkadla debacle where Thuli Madonsela, The Public Protector found President Zuma guilty of essentially developing his private residence at tax-payers expense unconstitutionally. The media’s reporting of the saga was largely unencumbered but in true African style the SABC belittled these gains by attempting to censor current and future coverage of public protests and even stooping so low as to dismiss journalist who refused to comply. Journalists do not make the news, people do, we just report on events and try, not always successfully, to put it into context. As Josh Stearns put it “ordinary people commit acts of journalism everyday”. Breaking news need not wait for a professional journalist to release it; we can share it quicker on social media platforms without state involvement.
Consequently we are all journalist with different levels of training and the freedom of the press should by extension cover all of us. Therefore a battle between the press and the state is essentially a battle between the people and the state, and as we have seen there can only be one winner. Asking questions to hold elected officials accountable is a civic duty we all have as is directing the manner in which we want to be governed. We are not enemies of the state buy so-doing, we are simply answering the call in our national anthem to come together and work for Botswana. But to do this successfully we need information on what is going right and what needs attention. Therefore freedom of the press, or is freedom of the people, is best exercised coupled with access to information. Opponents will quickly rush to defend secrecy, “it’s a matter of state security” they clamour. State security in itself is designed for the protection of citizens, are we so dangerous that we need protection from ourselves?
Public sector activities affect all of us in one way or another, we have the liberty to scrutinise their effect and question impropriety in these affairs. Planned state expenditure should always be public knowledge so that we can, through our elected official, remember those, endorse or reject it. Public involvement in public affairs is the bedrock of a successful democracy. When one journalist is arrested or intimidated so are we all.