Looking back to Windhoek

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On the occasion of MISA Botswana’s 20th anniversary, OMPHILE BASINYI asked Methaetsile Leepile about his thoughts on MISA, yesterday and today

How did you contribute to MISA as its founding regional director?

In November 1989 my boss and mentor, Patrick van Rensburg, ‘tagged me along’ to a meeting of publishers and editors from emergent regional independent newspaper publications in Chobe. His foundation, FEP (which owned Mmegi newspaper at the time), together with the  Swedish Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, had organised the consultation. It was here that the idea of setting up a regional media lobby group was first mooted. It was also at this meeting that the establishment of a ‘media bank’ was first discussed.

A few months later I travelled to Sweden in the company of seven other media practitioners from Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. All had been to Chobe. We called ourselves ‘the core group’. We had gone there to engage the Swedes about providing support for the development of the African independent media through bilateral and multilateral arrangements. In those days it was taboo for governments to extend support to such entities.


In 1991 I had joined a legion of other media activists from Africa and the rest of the world in the Namibian capital where the Windhoek Declaration on the Promotion of an Independent Pluralistic Press was endorsed by UNESCO. We seized the moment and decided that MISA, which we launched a year later, was going to be ‘the implementing arm’ of the Declaration. I had been involved behind the scenes as a member of the MISA Governing Council, in the setting up of the organisation. In early 1994 I had left Mmegi, where I was for eight years, to take up the challenge of launching the MISA head office and the national chapters in Windhoek.

What do you consider to be your contribution to the organisation’s success?

 Well, we started it from scratch really, and we always worked like a team. When I left for Windhoek in May of 1994, I was not even guaranteed a salary. In fact, there was no salary to pay me! David Lush, MISA’s first information officer and I, operated from the corner of Gwen Lister’s office at The Namibian newspaper for three months before we moved to our rented premises in Mozart Strasse. Lister was the inaugural chairperson of MISA.

David was a marvellous communicator. He was internet savvy and did wonders in drawing the world’s attention to the plight of journalists working under challenging conditions. In one case, MISA successfully mounted a campaign to raise funds for a Lesotho journalist who had been shot in the leg during political disturbances and needed an artificial limb. I learnt from such experiences that communication is key to the success of any start-up organisation.

I also attribute the success of MISA to the leadership of its founders. They had a vision of what they wanted and where they wished the organisation to go. They were selfless people, driven by conviction of what was right and a passion to succeed. They believed that a diverse media had a role in promoting democratic discourse.

I was fortunate to have worked under Gwen Lister and later Clara Olsen, chairpersons of the Governing Council – as well as the three founding trustees of the Trust Fund Board (TFB), the late Justice John Manyarara, Gilbert Mudenda and my erstwhile friend Bojosi Khebetu Otlhogile. The two women were like big sisters to me; they had a very calming influence on me.

I have some fond memories of the TFB chairman, Mr Justice Manyarara. He’d call me by the side like a father would to a son as we did some trouble shooting around the region, “Let’s kick butt, ML!” And he’d immediately burst into that healing laughter of his.

That was the ‘Judge’ for you, as colleagues admirably called him. The academic duo of Mudenda and Otlhogile later became part of the inaugural Samdef Board, MISA’s investment arm, our supposed ‘media bank’ which I also set up from scratch. Mudenda was ever the devil’s advocate, always searching for answers, never taking anything for granted. Otlhogile was the contemplative type. In meetings he’d be quite for the most part. But he would always have an answer whenever we found ourselves in sticky situations. You knew we were in a fix when the Judge, in his usual wisdom, looked up and called, “BJ?”.

How do you compare the of MISA Botswana of today to that of the 1990s?

I only got directly involved with the local chapter on my return from Namibia in 1999. The atmosphere was quite poisonous, following the splintering of a group which called itself the Media Consultative Council. I was deeply involved with the setting up of Samdef but found time to serve on the chapter’s Board. I approached Modise Maphanyane for help. He did a wonderful job in calming the waters and steering the organisation to stability. I have always found Maphanyane, who is now the current chairman of the MISA Regional Governing Council, something of a raravis; a very special person.

MISA chapters generally are facing problems. They are struggling to make ends meet. They should guard against mission drift. I think they became too complacent and failed to develop  strategies for sustainability when the environment was ripe. I also feel that they failed the legitimacy test in that they did not work hard to embrace their constituencies.

The new crop of media leaders did not necessarily identify themselves with MISA’s activities. I have had some discussions with a number of them, and most feel the organisation is detached. But of course there will always be two sides to a story: you can’t force a horse to drink if it’s not willing.

Since the 1990s there has been a proliferation of media interest groups – unions,  editors’ groups, publishers’ groups, investigative journalism groups, trainers’ groups, media arbitration forums. Since deregulation in 1998, radio, television and the performing arts  have also added to the repertoire of media players. This has led to a contestation of roles. Yet, we must accept, that this is what the founding fathers of MISA desired: media pluroformity. My view is that there is a role for all these groups. Competition should not mean alienation. They should collaborate for the good of the industry.  

Some of the challenges the MISA family faced during your time as the regional director?

We decided earlier on that the national chapters were the backbone of the organisation. Some governments were extremely hostile, perceiving the organisation as an agent provocateur.  I could not get a visa to travel to Angola until 1997. Mozambique and Angola had a very different set up from much  of Anglophone SADC in that there was really no independent media to talk about.. The few micro entrepreneurs we found were motivated by survivalist tendencies. But one also had to accept that these countries were emerging from decades of civil war, where poverty was rampant. In Lesotho, we had a situation where state operatives took over the leadership of the local chapter and the TFB had to order its dissolution. In Malawi and Tanzania the TFB suspended the chapters at one point due to maladministration. Zimbabwe and Botswana have always had good leaders, save for the occasional flares. Zambia under Fanwell Chembo, was by far the best run chapter during my tenure.

 

Are there areas which MISA Botswana needs to work on in redefining its role?

I see a lot of individualism among present day media practitioners. I think they need to come together and agree on what role each party has to play. MISA’s role has always been that of an advocacy organisation. It should avoid mission drift or else it would become irrelevant. Being the patriarch, it should take the leadership in mobilising other practitioners in developing a common agenda in such areas as resource mobilisation and advocating for freedom of expression issues.

 

Acknowledgement: This article first appeared in the MISA Botswana 20th Anniversary publication last week

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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