The end of the 11th parliament recently saw to an unfulfilled promise from the highest office in the land the repealing of the Media Practitioners Act (MPA) of 2008.
President Mokgweetsi Masisi, had on many times assured the media and the nation of Botswana that he would personally ensure that the MPA is history and in place would be the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FIA). Just a few weeks back, on return from an overseas trip, the President assured the media that the 11th Parliament would not come to end before the MPA is addressed.
Lo and behold! AIA is still just a dream, while the MPA remains on the shelves at the Attorney General Chambers. Even more significantly, the person who burdened us with the MPA, Pelonomi Venson-Motoi may never get a chance to speak to it as on August 2, 2019, she and few others left the august House for the very last time.
The MPA, to jog our memories, was one of the laws that came to being after a long, tired and lost battle by the media industry and stakeholders. In fact, the treacherous journey to force the media to conform to the dictates of the government started way before the previous administration of Ian Khama. It can be traced to that of the late Sir Ketumile Masire, and intensified during the Festus Mogae era.
It had gone through the hands of many ministers, of the likes of Ponatshego Kedikilwe, Daniel Kwelagobe, and Boyce Sebetela before Venson-Moitoi pushed it through in the last hour of December 28, 2008, when in all fairness, legislators in the House on that day could not have been in their sober fighting spirit to stop it. Even more importantly, the opposition was not as strong as today, and the ruling party members, with Khama fresh at the helm, could not have braved it to oppose something that the man personally wanted to see through.
In fact, we in the media activism field, were well aware that even if she was not convinced of its importance and urgency, Venson-Moitoi had no choice but to push it for the pleasure of her master. It was an open secret that Sebetela lost his position as minister of Communications, Science and Technology because he had come around to the reasoning of media, and agreed to the establishment of a self-regulatory Press Council of Botswana (PCB), which he officiated.
The PCB existence, and its endorsement by the minister, in many ways saw to the end of the need (or rather reasoning) by the government to control the media. But the government fought back, and enacted the MPA - a tool (law) to establish a statutory press council among other things.
The body of the law speaks in many and greater ways to control not just the establishment of the media houses, but dictates media operations and who the media worker is. Moreover, the law applies
To ensure the effect of the law, the MPA establishes a statutory Press Council, whose board is appointed by the minister. Despite the objections that followed the enactment of the law, the minister did appoint a board, which had a stillbirth when the Law Society of Botswana (LSB) refused to take up a seat as per the dictates of the law. The LSB had been in the forefront of fight against the draconian piece of legislation, and made it clear they would not legitimise press freedom abuse.
While on paper the statutory organ failed at inception, and thus the MPA was for the 10 years in place had been rendered ineffective, keeping it alive ensured the threat to freedom of expression is real, and that anytime, the government could, and can invoke any section of the law, against the media. Moreover, the government, even with its stillborn statutory press council, ensured the self-regulatory PCB is rendered in-effective.
A self-regulatory organ is dependent on membership. And membership in the PCB case, is the media industry, as a whole – government and independent media. In Botswana, the biggest and most influential (in terms of readership, listenership and viewership coverage) is the state media. In the beginning, as noted by the endorsement from minister Sebetela of the PCB, the government media was on board, and some notable individuals as the retired government media manager, Bapasi Mphusu and Dr Jeff Ramsey, amongst others, participated in the meetings that saw to the birth of the organisation.
Interestingly, when the MPA was signed into law, with the media now under the control of the Office of the President, it was the good Dr who issued a directive to government media to withdraw from the PCB as it was a “private organisation” which government employees were disbarred from participating in.
Alongside the fight to repeal the MPA, there was always the issue of tabling and passing the Access to Information Act – an important legislation in a democracy. It speaks to the heart of transparency. With FIA, the public, not just the media, have access to any government information to help in investigations, or even developmental issues.
This is one of the laws that fight corruption at all levels, Under FIA, anyone denied access to important information, can apply for the courts to force government to comply. Back when he was the Minister in the OP, President Masisi promised to put the bill before the 11th Parliament. The chapter of the 11th Parliament has closed on the enactment of the FIA as it has on the repealing the MPA.