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Subjecting press freedom to the spook of national security

Titus Mbuya
Outsa Mokone
The conditions under which journalists work are becoming more dangerous as governments around the world clamp down on their freedom in the guise oaf safeguarding national security, writes TITUS MBUYA

“Since the killing, law enforcement have arrested or detained at least 10 journalists, and tried to silence many more. They’ve escalated violence against the media, shooting tear gas canisters at reporters and dismantling cameras and lighting equipment. The Post’s Wesley Lowery was slammed into a soda machine and arrested after disregarding an illegal order to stop filming. ‘Don’t resist,’ one cop threatened an Al Jazeera reporter. ‘I’ll bust your head right here’.”

This chilling account of events could be a passage taken from the most critical newspaper of the Zimbabwean government about atrocities carried out by security agents against journalists in that country. But, lo and behold, the passage is from that American standard bearer of quality journalism, The Washington Post, describing the treatment of journalists while practicing their craft in the United States of America! It is taken from an article penned by columnist Katrina vanden Heulen following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this year.

This is the state of the media in modern day America. Many journalists in the US believe that the Obama administration has been the worst in terms of secrecy and lack of access to government information in recent times. The expose last year by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, regarding technology surveillance administered by the State, which includes eavesdropping on mobile phones of members of the public as well as intercepting their emails, has created fear among the media in the United States.  Mind you, NSA’s stated goal is to “acquire capabilities to gather intelligence on anyone, anywhere, anytime!”

The recent incidents of intimidation and harassment of journalists – the very watchdogs of the people’s freedom - in the US, are cause for serious concern for the media fraternity throughout the whole world.  It takes away the moral authority from the US to condemn such acts when they are perpetrated by other governments because America has always been the model for other democracies in this regard. It is understandable why the government spokesman, Jeff Ramsay, could react so harshly to the United States Department statement on the arrest of the Sunday Standard Editor recently. Ramsay was basically telling the Americans that they should stop throwing stones because they live in a glass house.

Hostility towards the press is a fact of life in many parts of the world. Not only are journalists under threat from governments but also from the underworld. According to a report by the New York based Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), already 40 journalists around the world have been killed this year. Last year alone, 211 journalists were imprisoned. And over 456 journalists have been forced into exile since 2008. These atrocious acts are being done on the altar of national security.

The foregoing observations should not suggest, for a moment, that one is advocating a hunky-dory relationship between the press and the government. In fact in a democracy it is normal for the relationship between the two to be adversarial. They are not friends, and they are not enemies either. Due to the nature of their roles in society the press and the government have a dialectical relationship which benefits society. Together with the two other pillars of democracy, namely, the judiciary and the legislature, the press and the executive are partners, not foes. The foursome underpins a functioning democracy by serving as a checks and balances mechanism on each other.

In Botswana the latest manifestation of the tension that exists between the press and government was the unwarranted arrest and detention of the Editor of the Sunday Standard, Outsa Mokone recently. This was bound to happen because the relations between the press and the government have deteriorated over the last few years. Needless to say, the press

and government are responsible for the escalation in hostilities. Earlier this year, BOCCIM made a halfhearted attempt to reconcile the two in vain. Their approach was flawed because they dealt with the symptoms of the problem instead of addressing its underlying causes.

It is not surprising that in the eyes of the State the story published in the Standard for which Mokone was arrested, posed a threat to national security. That is the refrain that governments around the world flaunt to silence the press. Of course we live in a dangerous world. The threat of terrorism in some countries, like the US, is real. And it is the sacred responsibility of any government to protect its people. However, it is also true that as governments grapple with the problem of terrorism, they invariably trample on the civil liberties of their people. This causes tension between the governments and the people. More importantly, such laws - some of which are well meaning - have led the press on a collision course with government.

National security in Botswana is not so much about safeguarding the country against possible acts of terrorism or sabotage from external forces. It is primarily about preservation of the ruling elite.

The advent of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) has brought into sharp relief the poisonous relationship between the press and the government. The spy agency has permeated virtually all aspects of life in Botswana. The media was its first target. The agency’s objective was to infiltrate the press with a view to weakening it. One should hasten to say that any government worth its salt, cannot do without an intelligence agency. In principle, the press is not against the existence of DIS. What they object to is the highhandedness of the spy agency and its propensity to act extra-judicially.

Ironically, the DIS itself, has now become a risk to national security. The country finds itself in a compromising situation where security agencies, especially those entrusted with the responsibility of gathering intelligence, are at loggerheads. As a result, leaks to the media about the activities of the intelligence community are the order of the day. This is dangerous to the national security of the country.

The feud between DIS and Military Intelligence (MI) is well documented. The bickering is over hegemony. Before the establishment of DIS the MI had more clout and power than the defunct Special Branch (SB), which was replaced by DIS. The SB was overshadowed by MI because it was starved of resources compared to MI. Otherwise the SB was more professional and discreet in executing its work.

Especially during the Festus Mogae presidency, MI was on the ascendance as the most reliable and influential intelligence agency in the government enclave. However, over the last six years the powers that be systematically stripped MI off some of its capabilities and sphere of operations. MI’s scope of operation was limited to such issues as anti-poaching and other less important security matters. Naturally, this generated resentment towards DIS. The animosity was epitomised by the recent “missing spy equipment” saga which was widely covered in the press.

This is the atmosphere in which the press in Botswana today is operating in. It is a poisonous environment which is characterised by deceit, lies and betrayal. Under such conditions it is easy for the press to be set up. This calls for the press to be vigilant. Agent provocateurs may plant false stories in newspapers so that the State can turn against the press and use prosecution to persecute journalists. Most importantly, the press should report truthfully and accurately. Not only will that insulate the press from malicious litigation, it will also enhance the media’s integrity and credibility in the eyes of the public.


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