Being Zimbabwean, Botswana is a huge contrast to my situation politically and economically, and indeed that of millions of my country people.
To many of us in Zimbabwe, Botswana is a hub of plenty and Zimbabwe, a desolate place of desperation. Botswana is a democracy and Zimbabwe a dictatorship. All these contrasting images have thus driven millions of my country people, including myself from time to time, to see what life is like in Botswana, buy toothpaste, soap and sugar.
Moreso, Botswana's stance on the Zimbabwe situation has given us hope and at the same time a major shift on the political map in Southern Africa, that one member state can stand up in defence of the harassed and oppressed. This shift is seismic if we are to look back at where we have come from and the fact that a few years ago it was unheard of and a taboo for an African government to criticise another. Botswana's stance, and indeed that of many other African governments, Zambia, Liberia and Kenya, marks a first for Africa in creating a stable and prosperous continent built on respect for democratic values. It is in the same spirit that I delve into the current legislative debates in Botswana, more importantly, the newly gazetted Media Practitioners Bill.
Media legislation in any form gives many of us from Zimbabwe goose bumps when we reflect on what has happened to the media under such laws as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). The combined effect of these laws has been to dismantle the small but vibrant media in Zimbabwe. With these laws the government has managed to ban four newspapers and condemn hundreds of media workers into exile, poverty and an uncertain future. The laws mentioned above did not come all at once; they were a build-up as the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and those in government, felt threatened by the media. In the end, what started as one law ended as a plethora of all sorts of laws seeking to accredit journalists, listen to telephone conversations, and intercept e-mail messages to demanding police clearance for a meeting of as few as five people. At the end of the day, there is no media to talk of in Zimbabwe. Where one law could not do the job another was introduced. It is with this feeling and in this context that I received the news and a copy of the Media Practitioners Bill. The term itself almost tells you there is something wrong with media practitioners that the government wants to fix. Reading through the bill one gets a feeling that while the Bill appears less threatening in terms of penalties, it still remains one of the most dangerous laws ever proposed in Botswana on media regulation.
Firstly, the proposed law is very clear that the intention is to establish a "Press Council, which will monitor the activities of the media and ensure the maintenance of high professional standards and to provide for the registration and accreditation of resident media practitioners".
From the above it is clear that the media in Botswana is in for some hard times. The Bill at the outset clearly states that the government, through the Press Council's committees, appointed by a government Minister now has a direct interest in the operations of the media. The government as a major player in the lives of the people of Botswana and, indeed, as the major policy-maker and pace-setter in developmental issues obviously has an interest in media issues. This interest in my view should relate to and be confined to how the media as a development partner can be further assisted to grow as well as how the government can use the media to effectively communicate with the people it serves. This to me is contrary to the spirit of the bill under discussion, which in fact seeks to set standards for the media and parameters on what would constitute good journalism or media and what is not acceptable. The government by setting a statutory Press Council is in-fact expanding its tentacles to influence media content by holding the spectre of the Press Council above the media. One gets the feeling of wanting to get the media for what ever sin it might have committed. In media policy the intention and drive behind a policy is very critical as it in-fact influences how that policy will be implemented and with what effect. Another question is whether there is demand for this law and if so from which forces and with what effect of the media freedom rights and development of the media in Botswana. I therefore, find sinister motives for the government to want to monitor the media using outside appointees to ensure professional standards. In many cases what governments call good media is that which specialises in bootlicking. In any case bonafide media organisations by their nature aspire for the highest standards of journalism, because a successful media organisation is built on public trust, which attracts readership, viewer-ship and listener-ship. Mismanaged and unprofessional media organisations always fall by the way side. The media on its own and from the outset seeks to be professional. Professionalism also means critical reporting, which those in power might not like. This should be acceptable in a democracy. First the setting up of a statutory media council is problematic because the government as a player in the media and as a major user of the media and as a major component of issues that are covered in the media is in fact becoming a referee and a player in the media game. Granted that the media makes mistakes and also works in one of the contested social arenas' that is information, the government should find it democratically acceptable, that media practitioners, themselves set up standards and codes
These professions (law, medicine, engineering) pose a major and fatal danger to peoples' lives in most circumstances, such as, if an unqualified person administer drugs to the sick or someone lies that he/she is an engineer and participates in construction activities, which might endanger peoples lives. These professions, which, I repeat, pose a real danger to society if unchecked, are in most instances left to self-regulate. One wonders what danger journalists pose to the Botswana people that statutory regulation has to be imposed, instead of encouragement and support to self-regulation. This position of the need for self-regulation is further buttressed by the 2002 Banjul Declaration of the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, which stipulate that self-regulation in the media is the best system of instilling professionalism in the media. Imposed Press Councils have failed in their attempt to instill professionalism, a euphemism for towing the official line because first they are run by government appointees who themselves have either political or business interest, which might become part of media reportage. And Statutory Media Councils are in most instances politically motivated to punish critical media. The role of a Press Council should be one of acting as an independent regulator and arbitrator. The role of a Press Council is not one of punishing as there will be no media left in Botswana if this Bill is implemented in its current form. Unlike statutory Press Councils imposed by governments, as is the case in this Bill, a voluntary Press Council plays the role of creating a platform for the interaction between media practitioners and society at large and also minimising damaging and costly litigation that media houses and media practitioners might face in cases of defamation law-suits and any other unethical conduct.
The Bill states that those not satisfied with the ruling of the Press Council will appeal to the courts. This position goes against the spirit of mediation, which is the foundation of Press Councils. The questions that have to be asked is what will the poor do, those who are the majority in Botswana, who do not have the resources to go to court? The Botswana Media Practitioners Bill lacks clear motivation as to why it is needed, hence these contradictions. If the government has an interest in promoting media ethics, then they can invest in media training, workshops and encouraging Voluntary self-regulation instead of imposing this from above. Promoting professionalism and ethical reporting cannot and should not take only one form, that of wielding the stick. This seriously undermines the ability of the media to work independently and promotes bully-boy tactics by those in politics, government and business.
With regard to accreditation and registration of journalists, the Bill again fails the test of promoting media freedom. First the registration and accreditation of journalists will mean that it is the government and not media houses who will decide who can work as a journalist in Botswana. This means that those journalists who are not registered and/or accredited cannot work, hence are affected as their means of livelihood are affected. The Bill is silent on what criteria will be used to register and accredit journalists and for what purpose, what period and what happens to those who do not register or accredit? Compulsory accreditation and registration of journalists is a violation of editorial independence, which is in turn one of the bedrocks of media freedom. I agree that some form of accreditation is necessary in certain circumstances. In those circumstances, accreditation or registration is meant to facilitate the work of journalists to access certain places, documents and individuals. Accreditation by such institutions as parliament should not be about barring but facilitation. By registering journalists, is the Botswana government saying that only journalists should write and speak out through the media in Botswana? What of churches that have an interest in writing and spreading the gospel through newspapers? What of economists, doctors, agronomists who write stories and opinions for newspapers? What of those who write letters to the editor? What of the rest of the people of Botswana, are they going to be silenced because they cannot be accredited and registered by a Press Council? Are journalists, registered and accredited the only ones to speak in Botswana? What becomes of freedom of expression in Botswana? All these point to the porosity of the argument on the need for compulsory registration and accreditation of journalists. The registration and accreditation of journalists should only be done to facilitate the work of those journalists not to restrict access and practice of the profession.
The Media Practitioners Bill, in my view is not well thought-out in terms of what developmental imperative it would address. More than restricting journalists, Botswana needs a vibrant media, open access to information to promote the good going on in the country and indeed correct the bad that is going-on. I posit that the government needs to revisit the Bill and instead draft a Media Development and Promotion bill that looks at expanding and facilitate journalism training, promoting e-government and access to information as well as promoting as many as possible, new media organisations in Botswana. Botswana is too good a country to follow the footsteps of Zimbabwe, otherwise where else shall we go for toothpaste and soap?
*Rashweat Mukundu is a Programme Specialist Media Freedom Monitoring MISA Regional Office, Windhoek, Namibia