Government Must Repeal Statutes That Criminalise Freedom of Expression

Botswana Editors Forum (BEF) notes the arrest and criminal charges laid against an administrator of an online publication, Moeladilotlhoko News Boiler (MNB), Tshepo Sethibe. He has been charged with spreading “alarming publications” after he published several posts about a missing child in Lobatse since the boy disappeared in March 2022.

To his 466, 881 followers, MNB reported that the police had found the child’s remains and would cremate them without holding a funeral or releasing them to the family. If convicted of spreading alarming publications, Sethibe faces up to two years imprisonment and an unstipulated ne, according to Section 33 of the Penal Code. His next court appearance is on 6 September.

BEF also notes that in January 2021, in a matter similar to the latest incident, Sethibe and four others were arrested and detained in police holding cells for a period of four (4) days. They were charged with criminal trespassing typically considered a minor crime and not usually associated with stiff penalties, which involves being on someone else’s property without permission. A month later, on 15 February 2022, the state withdrew the case

BEF calls on the police to drop the criminal charge against Sethibe, return devices seized from him and refrain from harassing MNB. Further, the Botswana Government should undertake reforms to remove laws that criminalise freedom of expression and train law enforcement officers to act professionally in execution of their mandate. Widely circulating pictures on social media, showing the accused in shackles and handcuffs accompanied by around 25 law enforcement officers, suggest a heavy handed approach on the part of law enforcement. To-date the police have not returned equipment seized from MNB offices, including two laptops, three mobile phones, a desktop computer and passwords.

This can only be calculated to intimidate and send shivers down the spine of members of the public and/ or newshounds who may wish to express themselves freely on social media platforms. Across the globe, media freedom and the associated free- dom of expression are some of the most endangered liberties. Its space is shrinking daily as law enforcement and governments enact laws that make it illegal to express a divergent view freely. Plurality is taking a serious beating as states crack down on those who advance knowledge by a process that includes questioning, denunciation and subjecting deeply held ideas to criticism. The charges of spreading alarming publications and criminal trespassing are just some of archaic statutes that criminalise freedom of speech and expression under the pretext of preserving law and order. These open-ended and vague penal code charges are susceptible to abuse by state apparatus and law enforcement to curtail freedoms of the citizenry. Such flimsy charges are a major threat to freedom of speech, particularly freedom of the press at a time when online/social media publishing is taking centre stage.

We fear that it may only be a matter of time before mainstream media follow suit and fall prey to law enforcement for ‘alarming publications’as they too are heavily active online. The MNB incident is just the tip of an iceberg and a wake-up call that even mainstream journalists are not safe any more. Freedom of Information law ‘Citizen journalists’ or random social media in uencers are a part of our soci- ety and are here to stay. Some may break ‘journalism’ ethics every now and then, but the important issue around the disappearance of the child in Lobatse is that the story carries a lot of national interest. Unfortunately, as usual, state authorities were not forthcoming with information, with such secrecy fuelled by the absence of Freedom of Access to Information Act that we have long agitated for to avoid conjectural reporting and keep the nation informed.

Far from the MNB posts, what was truly in ammatory was the silence of both the presidency and political structures in the face of an incident likely to cause civil unrest. The responsibility to assure the nation,especially when the prevailing suspicion is that Tlotso’s murder was related to a ritual purposes by prominent gures, lies with or- gans of state.

Criminal prosecution should never be used to silence dissenting voices or those that do not conform to norms, beliefs and/ or religions followed by others. Society develops when we cherish and nourish diversity of thought and expression. For these reasons, BEF condemns in the strongest terms such pieces of legislation that take away freedom of expression from society and calls on the government to rid our pe- nal code of such archaic and barbaric laws which have long been overtaken by event.