Today, May 3, marks World Press Freedom Day, a day when journalist take stock of the progress and challenges in their industry.
This year's commemoration comes when Botswana made a slight jump from number 39 to 38 in the World Press Index. When President Masisi ascended to power in 2018, he spoke the language which the media fraternity wanted to hear. For years calls to remove legislative instruments which impede media freedom, went unheeded.
The Masisi administration promised to reverse any law seen as draconian. It was the sweet music which journalists wanted to hear. Local journalists have been arrested while on duty, for infringing on certain laws, which are regarded as restricting media freedoms, or which inhibit free access to information. Masisi had promised to repel any law that goes against media freedom. He was applauded, but to date, the laws that journalists consider retrogressive and enemy of the fourth estate, still remain. In fact last year, June 18, there was a chilling reminder of how vicious the laws could be when two journalists from the Weekend Post were arrested for common nuisance.
The journalists were on an assignment and photographed a building linked to the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS). They were accused of photographing a protected zone. The arrest of the journalists was condemned and served as a wakeup call that the same laws that criminalized media work, were still in force. President Masisi has made his intentions clear that he wants a free press to function without hindrance. But the President has to walk the talk. It is insufficient to think that that the freedom of the press extends only as far as the absence of arrests of harassments.
Masisi did not want to succinctly admit that under his predecessor, Ian Khama an advertising ban against the private press existed.
The private media has suffered due to the ‘unofficial’ ban, which has shown signs of easing since Masisi took over. The private press suffocated during Khama’s reign, where press freedom declined alarmingly. Now, while there are notable improvements, there are still stains that need to be decisively removed. The 2008 Media Practitioners Act, which is deemed draconian, is still an ever present irritant. Masisi has not repelled the piece of legislation despite demands from the media industry.
There is still no law on access to information as requested by advocates of media freedom. Under the State of Emergency, journalists can be jailed for up to five years for publishing information about COVID-19 that does not come from the director of health services. While the Masisi administration has been hailed for improving media freedom, it will continue to feel like a hollow victory until pieces of legislation which are seen as impediments to media freedom, are removed.