Gov’t has just criminalised journalism – MISA

MISA leads the outcry prompted by a law that goes against the grain of President Masisi’s anti-corruption trajectory. LETLHOGILE MPUANG reports

In Botswana today, if a journalist receives a leak that a minister or a top civil servant has inaccurately declared his assets and liabilities to authorities, the journalist, his/her medium and the printing press could find themselves facing a 9-year jail term, fined half-a-million Pula or both.

This is according to the newly passed Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Bill, thanks to Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) legislators who voted in its favour during the 11th Parliament. This law has effectively criminalised journalism and curtailed press freedom in order to further protect illicitly of assets accumulated by politicians and high ranking civil servants from public scrutiny.

The Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Botswana) has condemned the BDP for the law. The body which guards media freedom in SADC says the law is anti-media and will have a negative effect on the country’s democracy.

The bill was presented by the Minister of Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Nonofo Molefhi on 21 June. “Any person to whom a declaration is made shall observe the confidentiality of all information contained in such a declaration and such confidentiality shall subsist even after the termination of his or her term of office or mandate,” it reads.

“Any person referred to in subsection (1), and any other person to whom the confidential information is revealed through the performance of his or her duties, shall not disclose the information to any other person unless he or she is required to do is in terms of any written law or by an order of a court of law. Any person who contravenes the provision of this section commits an offence and is liable to a fine not exceeding P500 000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding nine years, or both.”

In an interview with this publication, MISA Botswana director Tefo Phatshwane said a progressive democracy cannot at this time still hide information from the public. Declaration of assets and liabilities should be accessible to the media and the public as it is.

“The Act also threatens any person who may share such information with third parties, which is oppressive and counterproductive,” Phatshwane said. “The Act is not made in the best interest of the public and transparency. There is a high risk of abuse by the powers that be against their rivals.”

The president of the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF), Biggie Butale, has also condemned the new law. “We did say in Parliament that if there is non-disclosure of information in this bill, it does not serve any purpose,” Butale said. “Disclosure of information would allow scrutiny by both the public and media. The law is indeed anti-media.”

UDC president Duma Boko has also added his voice to the crescendo of condemnation of the law. Boko says they opposed the bill in Parliament because it was engineered to further conceal and lock out from public scrutiny of ill-gained assets. “It has been created in such a manner that it now protects these people from any further scrutiny and that anyone who dares to reveal that which has now become a secret from the public gets heavily punished,” he said.

Boko added that as much as the bill says declarations should be made to the Director General of the DCEC, who gets appointed solely at the discretion and liking of the President, it is of great importance for the public to be able to scrutinise the criteria, process and requirements met to make such an appointment.

But presidential affairs minister Molefhi says the law is in no way a threat to press freedom but creates a balance between personal private information and public information. “The law is not saying the information will not be accessible,” he said. “Transparency will be there but the law also protects personal data. What it is basically saying is that this information should not be used in a malicious way. The information will be public through the courts. It creates a balance between personal information and publication information.”

University of Botswana (UB) media studies lecturer, Dr Letshwiti Tutwane, responded: “I agree that it is going to cause problems for journalists and the media in the future. This law is certainly against public disclosure. The public needs full disclosure of these declarations. If not, corruption is likely to rise. It is slightly the same to a provision in the DCEC Act which speaks to disclosure of information for ongoing investigations. It could have a telling effect on the media in this country.”

“Democracy dies in the dark” is one of the famous slogans of The Washington Post. While its precise origins are unclear, it is a favourite saying of Bob Woodward, the famous Post reporter and editor who has deployed it in speeches and interviews since at least 2007 as an earnest criticism of US government secrecy.

With reported rampant corruption in Botswana and the collapse of many civic bodies over the past couple of decades, the private press has been the lone voice, besides the opposition, exposing state corruption and abuse of power.