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The role of social media in freeing Bots from State control of media

This paper argues that social media is important in any State that claims to be a democracy and that failure to have robust media involvement in the democratic process is likely to jeopardise democratic principles.

Although Botswana has been crowned as a successful story of African democracy over time, it is argued here that she is a liberal democracy marred by some shortcomings – especially those that have to do with government-media relations. The paper contends that the media (both government and private) is an indisputable partner in the deliberative democratic process, which should be nurtured and celebrated. A case is made that relations between the Botswana government and the country’s media houses have of late become hostile, as evidenced by the arrests and detentions of journalists. Premised on deliberative democratic theory, the article argues that a state that claims to be democratic, such as Botswana, needs to respect basic fundamental principles of democracy, such as freedom of the press.


Botswana; social media; democracy; State control; media freedom

Democracy is such an appealing word since in many instances it is equated with the presence of high levels of freedom and respect for human rights, where people are accorded the right to survive and live harmoniously. Ideally, it denotes the presence of a healthy socio-economic and political culture. Dalton, Doh, Shin, and Jou (2007) perceive democracy as a process which accords citizens their freedoms, civil liberties, social justice, participation rights as well as having institutions that support the rule of law. In this case, democracy could be appreciated from the dimension of giving citizens the freedom to express themselves deliberatively through social media as well as engaging one another on moral or political issues without fear. This paper therefore examines the concept of liberal democracy as it relates to the media in Botswana. It considers the role social media plays in allowing citizens to receive and produce the necessary information which will keep them abreast with what is happening regarding current socio- economic and political developments. The success and survival of any democratic community or nation rests on the democratic principle that everyone’s opinion and dignity matters and must be represented and respected. The democratic project calls for the awareness of the diversity of people and their roles and feelings, and must function along the lines of a guesthouse attitude, whereby whatever comes to the door should be given attention (Mindell 2002). In a deliberative democracy, it is important that all sides be heard on problematic issues and that every argument be logically defensible (Noddings 2013, 8). Deliberative democracy operates on the principles of collective decision-making, which takes into account diverse and pluralistic viewpoints as well as allowing free expression of ideas by all citizens. In spaces where other media may be constrained/affected, social media (Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Whatsapp, blogs etc) has the power to inform and empower citizens, allowing them to exercise their freedom of speech within a democratic state. Social media has distinctively contributed to the emergence of autonomously net- worked citizen-centred political perspectives within a democratic political space where multitudes shape and reshape their identity as well as redefining the political discourse through engagement (Papacharissi 2010; as cited by Loader and Mercea 2011). Loader and Mercea (2011) aver that; ‘The openness of social media platforms facilitates the potential of what Charles Leadbeater (2008) called the “mass-collaboration” of individuals and groups who become the source of new innovations and ideas in democratic practices’ (759). To the contrary, Omidyar Group (2017) charge that some social media platforms are not friendly to the democratic process since they nurture, perpetuate, and distract the civil society from civil debate or ‘real politics’ by promoting hate speech, terrorist appeals, and racial and sexual harassment, amongst others. Botswana has come from far as a democracy and the achievements she has made to date are commendable. However, as a state, Botswana, like all states, is still growing. As such, constructive criticism is useful both in terms of knowing where to improve things, and to honour democracy’s collective decision making. It is an open secret that Botswana’s state media is within the wings of the government under watertight control. The state, through the Office of the President, decides what is newsworthy and otherwise. Tutwane (2011) states that when the first President, Seretse Khama assumed office in 1966, he made an undemocratic move by centralising media in the Office of the President so that journalists could toe the line. Excessive restrictions on the ‘type and content of the news’ and anything that was seen as anti-government was scrutinised and consequently shelved if perceived to be problematic and ‘a danger’ to democracy upon public consumption. Botswana’s democracy is thus characterised by laws that restrict media freedom (Balule 2017).

Additionally, Fombard (2002) notes that the state-owned media in Botswana, which include; Botswana Television (Btv), Radio Botswana (RB) and the Daily News are all housed in the Ministry of Presidential Affairs. The State wants to be portrayed in a positive way and to think of State media reporting on issues of nepotism, corruption or bribery at present is unthinkable. Social media has positively impacted many democracies and governments over the years and in Botswana it will definitely liberate citizens from the ‘news blackout’ perpetuated by State media since the State-controlled media is just a puppet of the State. If the State is going to perpetually attempt to monitor and control the media, denying her citizens a platform for having a voice within their democracy; then for now the only alternative for Batswana, especially the youth, will be to responsibly register their political views and exercise their liberty and freedom of expression in Botswana’s political fraternity through social media.

The diverse media that exists within a society should serve as a fountain for providing the masses with pronounced and visible communication infrastructure. A democracy becomes healthy only if there are no discriminatory or oppressive principles put in place to sideline or silence citizens by restricting access to information. Media (social media in particular) can be a key watchdog on issues of general societal corruption and on corruption by the state itself.

According to Balule (2012), in a democracy the press serves as the people’s watchdog by ensuring independent criticism and evaluation of the established power of government or other institutions that may usurp democratic power (the watch- dog function) (33). Fombad and Sebudubudu (2012) contend that in the case of Botswana, the government’s anachronistic control of the state’s media, especially television and radio, poses a major challenge to good governance and the democratic process as a whole. Making reference to Diamond (2012), Echle (2015) maintains that social media has become part of what is referred to in communication science as ‘liberation technology’ – which empowers citizens to challenge authoritarian and autocratic regimes to account to the civil society.

Democracy as a concept and as a system of governance is meant to usher in the preservation and promotion of the dignity of every individual as well as respecting fundamental human rights and this can only become possible if the citizens are given the freedom to express their views without fear for victimisation and/or torture.

New media should therefore be given a platform to democratise political communication and it is also important for citizens in any democracy to have information in order to participate in the decision- making process (Tambani 1999). It is vital in a democracy that freedom of expression be valued since it facilitates the free flow of information and ideas that inform political debates, hence it should also be jealously guarded by the courts of law (Balule 2009). However, Fombad and Sebudubudu (2012) further charge that although the private media deserves some credit for Botswana’s positive record in a democracy and good governance, as in most African countries, it faces a number of challenges, not least from an increasingly hostile government that has not yet learned to live with the frequent criticism levelled against it (94).

The general state of press freedom in Botswana remains a controversial issue. Journalists in Botswana, through the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) have cried foul over the dwindling of press freedom due to the government’s passing of the Media Practitioners Act in 2008. The Bill received mixed reactions and sounded an alarm in the media fraternity where journalists recorded that Botswana had entered an era of absolute government media control.

Motseta (2008) registers that amongst other things, the Media Practitioners Act would take to task any person who contravenes any provision of the legislation for journalism and in the event one is found wanting before the law, they could be pinned for a fine of up to R5, 000, face imprisonment for up to three years, or be subjected to both simultaneously. This Bill has been heavily criticised by both politicians and journalists, arguing that it was a signal that Botswana’s democracy is ailing and that press freedom had diminished. Furthermore in Botswana, as observed by Ott

(1998), the ‘force’ of the ‘electronic republic’ was felt especially during the 2011 nationwide, public service workers strike, dubbed the ‘mother of all strikes.’ Here social media took the centre stage, and information moved faster and more robustly than ever before. Since then, the power of social media has grown steadily, to the degree that during the 2014 general elections government began complaining about ‘irresponsible journalism’ and ‘irresponsible citizenship’ as young people expressed their political views over the internet, especially through Facebook, at times in quite bitter exchanges. Tufecik and Wilson (2012) refer to this type of participation as the political ‘Facebook Revolution’. Gabathuse (2015) describes how President Khama’s government has had skirmishes with the private media, to the degree where the Office of the President declared that it would fund members of the Cabinet when they sue media practitioners and their media houses for rubbing them the wrong way.

A Comparative Analysis of Government-Media Relations: President Mogae versus General Khama

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (1997) indicates that in a democracy, citizens have a basic right to exercise their freedoms and be treated equally so that their pluralist views matter in the participatory process of democracy. The Inter-Parliamentary Union further states:

As an ideal, democracy aims essentially to preserve and promote the dignity and fundamental rights of individuals, to achieve social justice, foster the economic and social development of the community, strengthen the cohesion of society and enhance national tranquility, as well as to create a climate that is favourable for international peace. As a form of government, democracy is the best way of achieving these objectives; it is also the only political system that has the capacity for self-correction (iv).

Given the above claim, it is useful to make a critical analysis on how former President Mogae fared in terms of cherishing democratic principles, especially with regard to media relations. It is also beneficial to ask whether the government of Botswana currently accords her citizenry, through the media, a platform to exercise their civil and social rights without fear of scrutiny or punitive measures being taken against them by the government.

The state of democracy presupposes that people should be given the freedom to look at issues from diverse angles without any interference, as well as being able to disseminate information through media regardless of frontiers (Inter-Parliamentary Union 1997). President Mogae generally followed the Constitution which was used by his predecessors – President Khama and President Masire respectively, inheriting from them government-media relations which were centralised within the Office of the President, with the Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration as the overseer. Mogae basically perpetrated the status quo. Although he probably did not put his foot down so much on press issues he disagreed with, he still had his own ways on displaying abhorrence to the private press. The exaggerated celebration of Botswana as ‘Africa’s successful miracle story’, based largely on its economic growth triggered by diamonds mining, to a larger extent ignores the actual realities of a democracy, especially given the arrogance and complacency by its rulers who wield enormous powers (Good 2008).

Just like other former Presidents before him, President Mogae had executive powers to execute on any publication that he deemed unprofessional in terms of it relaying messages, which were anti-government. However, President Mogae did not go to the extent of threatening to sue the private media, as has happened with General Khama – who threatened to sue the Sunday Standard in 2009, claiming that the newspaper had defamed his character by claiming that he might have had a hand in a case where security agents shot and killed an alleged armed robber (Sunday Standard 2009). The newspaper in turn threatened to counter sue General Khama, who ultimately ordered his attorneys to drop the case. Such events were interpreted from various arenas by both liberals and conservatives who would both have realised that they were dealing with a President who would ‘not take any nonsense’ in the event that somebody could be interpreted as stating anything against his character. Nonetheless, it was during President Mogae’s era that the government took the radical step to ban advertising in the Botswana Guardian and the Midweek Sun, since these newspapers were publishing articles that were critical of certain leaders of the country including the President and the Vice-President (Maripe 2003). Maripe further avers that the directive was issued from the Ministry of Mineral Resources, Energy and Water Affairs, (normally it would have been issued from the office of the permanent secretary to the President). The directive read:Advertising in private newspapers:

We would like to inform you that the government has decided that, with immediate effect, we should cease advertising in the Guardian and Sun Group of papers. This directive applies to all government Ministries/Departments, parastatals and Private Companies in which the government is a shareholder. You are of course, expected to use your discretion regarding any signed contracts. This is taken as an available option for all consumers. Thank you (72).

On top of this, President Mogae labelled himself as an intolerant person who hated freedom of speech after using all the powers vested upon him to declare a University of Botswana professor, Kenneth Good, a prohibited immigrant after he was due to present a paper which was weighed as anti-government, and thus perceived as having a potentially damaging effect on Botswana’s supposed reputation of democracy.  Botlhomilwe, Sebudubudu, and Maripe (2011) hasten to substantiate on this point by asserting: Perhaps the last major manifestation of intolerance and attack on freedom of speech during the reign of Mogae occurred in February 2005 with his deportation of Kenneth Good, an Australian political science Professor with the University of Botswana. He had been constituently critical of Botswana’s democracy especially in relation to the extensive powers bestowed on the presidency and the marginalisation of the Basarwa community. The reason behind his deportation has never been known though it is believed it was related to his criticism of the Botswana government (333–334).

The deportation of Professor Good drew much attention on the international scene and some eyebrows were raised at a global level regarding the democratic nature of Botswana, especially pertaining to its relationship with the media and the country’s academics. Fear arose that under President Mogae academics could be sent to prison if they were seen to be presenting and publishing inflammatory and anti-government pieces. It is clear from the above that President Mogae did not take kindly to government criticism or negative reporting by the media, just as General Khama does today. Here again we see a classic example of the power behind social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) in spreading news to the world on an issue that would otherwise be ‘a closed internal territorial issue’ had the social media been inefficient.

President Mogae’s actions against Professor Good were perceived as a clear indication that Botswana had become an autocracy. The same label seems to apply to General Khama, who more often than not has been labelled as a dictator by the private press. Their argument is substantiated by General Khama’s militarisation of the country’s public services by placing former military personnel loyal to him in various public departments. These actions can be seen as a hindrance and a barrier to the free exercise of individual freedoms as outlined in Botswana’s Constitution.

Summarily, President Mogae and General Khama are different political figures, yet no clear line seems to distinguish them from one another when it comes to their attitude towards private media. They have both used their constitutional powers to clamp down on any media or individuals whose publications or scholarship could be interpreted as problematic to the general reputation of the State. In comparison with other African political standards, Botswana can be seen as a ‘successful’ democratic State and it is often celebrated as such. However, when it comes to the practical running of the country, the many constraints on media freedom and freedom of speech, allow us to realise that the State’s power has been used cumbersomely to suppress freedom of expression. Tutwane (2014) makes a case that the Media Practitioner’s Act of 2008, which was passed by General Khama’s administration, was the last nail on media freedom in Botswana for the journalists since it was enacted to govern the conduct of media practitioners. Tutwane further contends that the government of Botswana under both former President Mogae and General Khama has maintained the trend of harassing the press as evidenced by deportation of foreign journalists as well as denying private media houses advertising revenue from the government.

*Agreement Lathi Jotia is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Botswana’s Department of Languages and Social Sciences Education. This article was published by Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 2018

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