Clara K. Olsen remembered
It is now exactly five years since Clara Olsen, or Mma Olly as she was popularly called passed on.
Until the end, she worked behind her desk as the Managing Editor and Chief Executive Officer of Botswana Gazette newspaper.
Clara Olsen had a strong knack for getting a story.
When it came to journalism she insisted and stuck to the basics. Her cardinal journalism code was, “It’s better not to get the story than to get it wrong.”
Strong-willed and a workaholic herself, she was equally ruthless in her demands on others – forever pushing everybody around her to the limit so as to reach their maximum capabilities.
On media matters, human rights and civic organization Clara was a global icon – known and respected the world over.
Although she was a women’s rights advocate, she was just as demanding on women journalists to earn their stripes and prove their worth in the tumultuous trenches of deadline dictated journalism.
Grooming, mentoring and training young journalists were her innate passions.
She had an amazing gift to spot and identify talent, and over her long career she produced many prominent journalists that went on to practice journalism at the highest levels. She was uncompromising when it came to the tools of journalism. Every new recruit arriving into the newsroom was taken through a drill that often sounded like a ritual.
“A deadline is very fundamental to the life of a journalist. And if you are to succeed as a journalist you will have to respect the sanctity of a deadline,” she would say as often as a drumbeat.
She took serious offence in what she called “thumb sucking” in reference to a tendency of laziness among journalists that often manifests itself in clutching at straws by creating a story where none existed. She lived by the rule that Facts are Supreme.
Until her passing, Clara Olsen represented the now fast fading era of the unblemished impartiality of the media, where honesty and integrity were guaranteed and readers had no reason to question, much less pronounce the possible underlying motives of either the story or its writer.
Journalists, she never stopped telling us, were responsible not to politicians, business people and other celebrities they often interviewed and mingled with. Instead they were accountable to the readers, especially the weaker members of society. A journalist who envied Hollywood celebrity lifestyle was misplaced, and thus best advised to look for another job at their earliest.
On that score she insisted that journalists had to be fully independent.
I am not sure she would be proud were she to wake up today and see the general state of the media – especially in so far as it pertains to independence – where journalists are literally tripping over themselves to become members of the ruling club.
She would certainly be profoundly hurt at the clear lack of public confidence on the media.
Equally hurtful to her would be the internecine rivalry and petty divisions among the trade practitioners that are undermining progress even on matters that should otherwise be naturally uniting the media.
Under today’s climate, collaboration has become impossible. Developmental journalism was her heartfelt passion.
She insisted on us getting out of the city and going to the rural areas to see how “real” people lived. And on that score she was ever willing to use her own resources to finance our travels. The media’s obsession with the elite rankled her.
The job of the journalist, she strongly believed, was to establish the impact of decisions taken by those in power on an ordinary man.
On that score she often fondly regaled us with stories of her time working as a young reporter at the Rand Daily Mail at the height of apartheid in South Africa where her acquaintances and colleagues included among others Aggrey Klaaste, who later on became a legendary Sowetan Editor and Percy Qoboza, journalist, author, and outspoken critic of the apartheid government.
Those years had implanted in her a strong belief that journalism and truth-telling were or ought to be inseparable. Nothing pleased her more than seeing the voice of an ordinary, unknown human coming out in a story.
A fully paid-up member of the elite herself, Ms Olsen despised the elite, if not for anything then because she believed they stayed in a bubble, not knowing just what and how other people outside of their circles thought and lived.
When it came to the media standing up to those in power she was unrelenting in her demand on us to show grit, tenacity and staying power. She took serious offence if she detected any attempt –however slightest – on anyone us trying to use The Gazette for clandestine public relations purposes. Such a story was immediately jettisoned, followed by a strong tongue lashing that often went on and on for weeks before it was settled. It often took an exceptionally good story from the culprit before a previous offence could be forgiven –but certainly never forgotten.
While many of us who worked under her have many stories to tell about this elder who aroused abject fear in us, Ms Olsen was also humanity personified.
She had an easy way to charm and disarm with her kindness, doting and affection. One day at the end of what was an excessively rancorous deadline, she sensed that I was both exhausted and exasperated. She called me to her office and offered me herbal tea. “Spencey,” she said with some measure of elderly love and guilt, “You must always have this. It keeps you fresh. You see how strong I am. It’s because of this.”
Perhaps because of her previous experience as a Member of Parliament and also as a civic movement activist, Ms Olsen was deeply disdainful of an excessively powerful government and believed, quite ardently that it was the job of the media to always put government on a short leash and in whatever way work at preventing and counter-balancing government overreach, especially the tendency to meddle in individuals’ rights.
Ms Olsen was loyal, and loyalty to her was personal. Once you had made an undertaking with her on any matter that she truly believed in, you could always count on her, knowing fully well that you had your back covered – all the way.
She was combative when it came to defending the principles she believed in and she made little or no compromises.
When it came to journalism, media freedom and free speech she was bold and ever unafraid to pick fights. In the early 2000s, when Kitso Mokaila was minister responsible for communications, Ms Olsen mounted a long, public, sustained and often cat-like fight with him against what later came to be known as the Media Practitioners Act. Until her death she despised that piece of law and made no attempts to hide her absolute contempt of it. Most disdainful to her about the Act, was a requirement for anybody practicing as a journalist to be registered by a body appointed by a minister of state.
She argued convincingly that such a requirement put powers on a cabinet minister to ultimately decide who can be registered. “We cannot give so much power to a politician,” was her rallying cry. What Caesar can give, Caesar can take away, she said. Anybody who fell foul of the minister, argued Ms Olsen could ultimately be de-registered.
And this possibility troubled her.
To that end she led the creation of the Press Council of Botswana, of which she was the founding chair.
Although she had been extremely passionate about the work of MISA Botswana, the creation of which she had also played an oversized role, towards the end she expressed subtle disillusionment that MISA had strayed away from its founding objective of media freedom advocacy.
“They are now obsessed with training for HIV/AIDS,” she said to me more than once.
After starting the Sunday Standard , I went to argue against taking Government to court on the Media Practitioners Act. Her first response was to go ballistic, rapping me for adopting a timid and apologist posture in the face of attacks by the Botswana Government. I stood firm telling her that going to court was a risky strategy that could end up eroding all the gains we had made years earlier when Botswana Guardian took Government to court on the advertising ban.In the end she came around to see things from my worldview and that gave me a lot of excitement. For someone who had been groomed by her, it was a great feeling to finally agree with her on something.
Sadly, our consultative approach to halting the bill was nullified overnight when it was rushed through parliament, sponsored by the then Minister Pelonomi Venson as part of a collection of repressive laws pushed at the behest of former president Khama. To Clara, the Khama presidency and the dangers it posed became another fight, one she sadly did not see through to the end. Ironically, on the 5th anniversary of her passing, parliament is discussing the possibility of scrapping the law, a development I hope brings her peace, wherever she may be.