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Botswana Media Landscape, An Elephant In The Room

Under the crucial watch of history, Botswana has continued to be reluctant in adopting a comprehensive and legal framework for community broadcasting that has been embraced by almost all SADC states.

This could explain perhaps why even the UB community radio has not been licensed, because in an ideal situation, the radio could also broadcast programmes from a wider community in which it is based.

In a UNESCO chart showing the role of community broadcasting as an umbilical cord of democracy, Botswana stands out clearly defiant with an empty space for this important social service while Namibia has listed 10, Malawi a record of 24 and Zimbabwe 20 community radio stations, playing an important role in fostering media pluralism, which comparatively does not exist in Botswana.

The history of community broadcasting goes for over a period of 60 years when mining communities in Bolivia and Columbia in Latin America set up their own community radio stations, struggling to obtain better and fair working conditions. Today, community radios are described as radio services by the people, close to the people and for the people, operating for social benefit and not for profit and enabling participation by the community in programme production and management.

Against this background, it is worth citing article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of opinion and expression and the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers. Article 9 of the African Charter on human and people’s rights also stipulates that every individual shall have the right to receive, express and disseminate his opinion within the law, but most limitations in Botswana are imposed by Government and some are under the general laws.

The above legal and regulatory frameworks on community broadcasting need a media environment where policy issues are not in conflict with the freedom of expression and the freedom to receive and impart information as guaranteed in the laws of the country. UNESCO declaration on the promotion of independent and pluralistic media says State should create genuine opportunities for consultations with non-state actors about media legislation and policy towards media, which has not been the case in Botswana.

The last licensing for commercial radio stations was ten years ago and this, compounded by non-licensing for community radio stations puts the country in a bad light. There has never been an official explanation why there cannot be radio licensing, however rumour has it that it is because of the small population of the country. If this is the case, one wonders how Namibia, with almost the same population has managed its spectrum resources. Like in other countries, Botswana’s spectrum infrastructure carries data and voice communications as an invisible resource, but it would appear it is not properly nurtured to serve the interest of Batswana. Signal interference from high powered transmissions in South Africa, degrading the signal quality of radio services in Botswana could be cited as an example, partly attributable to what is believed to be lack of spectrum allocation.

In the beginning, radio interference in Botswana was thought to be a radio stray signal or spill-over, but its dynamics suggest it is a programmed signal because it has created captive audiences in urban areas of Botswana, swamping market for Duma, Gabz and Yarona FM radio stations as they are still struggling to complete their 10 year transmitter rollout programme. RB2 which is financed by the Government is also no match to the three commercial stations because it has a wider reach and has state of the art equipment.

Print media is also in the same boat, as it could be remembered that the government brought Mass Media Bill in 1995 under regulatory framework without proper consultation, but retreated tactically under pressure. The bill resurfaced in 2008 disguised under a new tittle, Media Practitioners’ Bill. After it was passed, there was a seismic pressure from the Law Society of Botswana, refusing to participate to become part of the press council as demonstration of solidarity with the private media.

The formation of the press council also turned the tables and further widened the gap between the Government and the private media because media practitioners objected to a clause, which calls for the registration of media practitioners by press council. Sadly, the self-regulatory press council which existed before was flipped with the passing time without recognition and forgotten.

In an ideal situation, members of the press council should include a retired judge as the chair because the council is a quasi-judicial body which acts as a watchdog of the press, adjudicating for violation of freedom of the press among others. The majority of the members of the council as it obtains in most countries, South Africa included, are journalists, nominated by press organisations while the minority come from parliament and civic society.

There is no doubt that Botswana press council is a linchpin of the country’s media development, but its accessibility to Batswana generally remains questionable.  Its role to promote awareness on freedom of expression, seems not to be reaching out enough to the general public.  Information about its contact address and the procedure to lodge complaints, should be regularly published in newspapers and broadcast by local radio stations to reach all sectors of the society.  It was generally believed that the council would relief courts with libel and slander cases as well as complaints, but this cannot happen without a retired judge as chair. 

As media in Botswana is generally regulated by the state through Media Practitioners Act, the issue of state held information which the public should know, is becoming more critical

than ever. The incident of a journalist who was harassed, detained and released by police on suspicion that he received a file from an officer working at the Office of the President, containing classified information is a disturbing development in the country’s media environment because the Constitution of Botswana, under the protection of the fundamental rights and freedom of the individual, Section 12, says every person in Botswana has the right to freedom of media to report stories and publish opinions. It is generally believed that the incident was a reaction to an unprecedented leaks of state held information to the press, contrary to National Security Act which restricts free access to information and Public Service Act of 2008 which restricts public servants from disclosing information that should infect be available to the public.

This could also be compounded by the fact that even issues of national concern are usually left to speculation without the president addressing a press conference to put the record straight. It is logical therefore to think that restriction on the flow of information by the state as enforced by the Public Service Act and policy directives, invariably negates against press freedoms, such as the right to seek, receive and impart information as defined by UNESCO. The issue of reporting in Botswana also needs a reflection. Speculative and sensational reporting are anathema to a conducive media development that Botswana needs.

The Sebina case of a school girl, for example, reportedly impregnated by a Councilor, is a case in point of unethical reporting based on social media and anonymous sources. This is the danger that global media is phasing because a combination of new electronic devices opens new opportunities for citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression using these gargets without professional ethics.

As watchdog of gGvernment in promoting transparency and exposing corruption, there is a temptation for some local papers to over criticise the President, sometimes using words that do not show respect for him. He is the head of state and should be accorded the respect that reflects our nationhood. There is also a concern about reporting issues of national security that need a sense of patriotism, for example, comments made by some newspapers in the recent past that Botswana is acquiring sophisticated weapons can benefit a  potential enemy.  

To level the playground for a conducive media environment in Botswana, the state media, Radio Botswana and Botswana Television should be transformed into public service broadcasters, under board of governors. This should have been the recommendations of Tony Hughes who was tasked to provide a media framework for Botswana in 1969.  The only recommendation he made to this effect was to remove the department of information, The Daily News and Radio Botswana, from the Ministry of Home Affairs to Office of the President.

Ten years later, another media consultant, Christi Lawrence was engaged and like Hughes, he did not recommend any transformation of state media.  Instead, he recommended separation of Radio Botswana from The Daily News to be headed by different directors and the establishment of the Botswana Press Agency, BOPA. It is now 18 years since the last report on the country’s media framework and with the advent of television and private radio stations, it is imperative to adopt a more comprehensive and legal framework that will even allow for the licensing of community broadcasting.    

The pressure for this transformation is the result of lack of editorial independence in government media based on professional criteria void of manipulation by political parties. The prevailing perception that Btv only covers political rallies of the ruling party does not augur well for the country’s media environment because it could be a pattern for the party in waiting. Without professional capacity, built on professional associations to address labour issues, the country’s media environment will not change.

The defunct Botswana Journalist Association tried and failed to become a mouthpiece of journalists and other current associations of the profession are floundering because they don’t include government journalists governed by Public Service Act.  For private journalists to have professional capacity, they should strive to unionise to form something like Botswana Journalists Union and affiliate with other Unions in the country. 

Training is another issue of concern in the county as aspiring journalists usually struggle to get accredited qualifications from recognised institutions.

There are challenges of on-the-job training, internship as well as cadre training which by their nature should be the responsibility of media houses. There is also an issue of accredited institutions for the profession, a school of journalism for example is needed to complement the work done by the University.

Thanks to the organisers of the recent workshop on Partner Collaboration between Media and Training Institutions, which was held on 27th and 28th March in Gaborone. The training was an eye opener on issues of concern, particularly on-the-job and cadre training moderated by Dr. Seamogano Mosanako of Media Studies at UB.

Her presentation echoed the need for a well-developed media landscape and journalists training as propounded by UNESCO which says without the skills and expertise of professional journalists, the press cannot function effectively. 

The issue of standards in the profession, which is also critical in the country’s media landscape was adequately addressed by Botswana Qualification’s Authority officials, providing guidelines on how aspiring journalists should get accredited qualifications from recognised institutions and not certificate of attendance as it has been the case.  was very conspicuous.

Opinion & Analysis



Ka Mme Mma Boipelego

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