Botswana Gazette in collaboration with Business Weekly and Review Reporters.
President Ian Khama has over the years repeatedly accused the media of irresponsibility, in the same manner as his contemporary in the US Donald Trump. He has accused the media of reporting on matters that they “know nothing about” and making false assumptions based on lack of information.
Khama’s narrative has been adopted by his supporters who have accused the media of bias and peddling untruths giving rise to uninformed articles. On the contrary however, Khama in tarnishing and publicly attacking the media as “unpatriotic” and “irresponsible” fulfils and perpetuates a cycle of his own narrative by controlling the method of information dissemination and by omission refusing to answer straight forward questionnaires. Media houses have and continue to refute Khama’s allegations and view such allegations an intrusion into the rights of the media and freedom of expression.
Khama, both directly and through his representatives in their discourse on the media omit to state that they fail to provide information that is requested by the media. They further fail in their public discourse to address the fact that they answer media questionnaires in the most perfunctory manner imaginable. The Office of the President when faced with questions is obliged to answer them. The constitution specifically states that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to receive information. In order for citizens to exercise the right to receive information an equal duty is placed by the constitution to avail information unless it falls under certain very narrow provisions such as national security.
It is not for no reason that an oath taken to testify before a court for example compels one to say “I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth”. The oath envisages two parts; the first “to tell the truth” compels the person taking an oath not to give a false fact, known as a lie by commission. The second part of the oath “and nothing but the whole truth” compels a person not to leave out any information that may adversely affect the conclusions drawn from the (partial) facts disclosed; a lie by omission.
The office of the President in failing to answer questions put to it by the media is not only in violation of the constitutionally protected right to receive information but is furthermore engaging in what amounts to a deliberate engagement intended to obscure information that is only partially available; a lie by omission. A lie by omission renders public discourse into important information an exercise in futility as the complete facts remain unknown and unanswered by those concerned, and leading to an unsubstantiated and hypothetical debate in the public arena. The very complaints Khama revels in levelling at the media.
Lies by omission as opposed to deliberate falsehoods, lies by commission, are inherently more repugnant than the latter, as lies by commission at least permit the possibility of them being refuted in the public arena.
On the 29th March, The Business Weekly and Review sent the Office of the President a questionnaire on the role of the President in reaching the settlement with the 4 suspended judges Dingake, Letsididi, Garekwe and Busang. Permanent Secretary to the President and Secretary to Cabinet, Carter N. Morupisi failed to respond to the questionnaire within the time availed by the publication. When the OP did respond, the response was clouded in obfuscations and deliberate omissions. OP did not directly address a single question. In spite of the questionnaire clearly stating that Business Weekly was seeking clarification of the already released Government Press Statement of the 28th March. The response on behalf of the OP was terse and can be summarised in a single line, that “In any event, the substance of your 26 questions are for the most part already provided for in our Press Release of the 28th March, 2017, a copy of which is attached to ease your reference.” For the sake of our readers and in fairness to the Office of the President, we are publishing the full set of questions and response alongside this article.
It is difficult to understand how in answering specific questions one can reply that they are for the “most part” answered by the very statement that is being questioned. Indicating that the questions are “for the most part” addressed in the press statement is an acknowledgement that the press statement does not in fact contain all the answers to the questions being sought. What is telling is that in spite of this acknowledgment, the press statement does not provide all the answers, Morupisi who is acting on behalf of Khama omits to address and answer the questions that have not been answered for the “most part” by the press release.
The Business Weekly and Review, having passed their publication deadline contacted The Botswana Gazette to pursue the questions further. This publication varied the questions to cater for the first response to the Business Weekly’s questions and resubmitted them in line with its own publication deadline. Once again the Office of the President did not meet the deadline date for response. Initially the Office of the President intimated that they had already answered the questionnaire by the Business Weekly and therefore saw no need to answer this publication’s questions. When this publication pressed the Office of the President further, by indicating that the questionnaires were different though containing various overlaps the OP provided the same answer to this publication as it had to the Business Weekly save that it added that the President in entering into the settlement agreement with the Judges had exercised his powers under the Constitution as read with section 18 (1) of the Interpretation Act.
The response to both publications contains the specific inclusion of the Press Statement that the publications sought clarification of; reaffirming, by so doing that it contained the “whole truth” in the absence of any additional responses to media questions. The line that the questions were “for the most part” addressed by the Press Statement was repeated. Once again for fairness the questions and the response are published alongside this article.
The position by the OP to obfuscate issues by lack of response is neither new nor unique. Other government departments have and continue to use the same ploy to avoid media questions. The private sector too has adopted the same approach. Journalists seeking documents from the High Court in respect of litigation have been denied access to court records based on a provision of the High Court Rules that only allows parties to the proceedings access to the records, in contravention of the principles that courts and their records must be open to public scrutiny. The reliance on the much misapplied “sub judice” in refusing to answer journalists’ questions has increased in use. The “sub judice” rule prohibits the attempt to influence a court in a matter that is currently before it. The rule does not prohibit general commentary.
As the media, we adhere to a code of conduct that abides by the principles that where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinion, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly. Furthermore, as the media we seek the views persons that are the subject matter of critical reportage in advance of publication; subject to the exception that the interview is not to be done where the media house has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from reporting; where evidence might be destroyed or sources intimidated; or because it would be impracticable to do so in the circumstances of the publication. The media adheres to the principle that reasonable time should be afforded the person affected by the story, for a response and that in the event that the media are unable to obtain such a response, this shall be reported.
These principles are however not a one way street. They demand reciprocation by those affected. Those that fail to answer on time, those that do not provide full answers or lie by either omission or commission cannot thereafter cry foul when reports and articles do not paint them in a favourable light. The “irresponsibility” that Khama accuses the media of does not fall on the media but rather on Khama and his office for failing to adhere to the constitutional principles that govern freedom of expression and in consequence embolden others to refuse questions.