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Masisi and the private press: the unfulfilled promises

RYDER GABATHUSE
Masisi with the media PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
There is a strong view that whilst the Masisi-led Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) government committed itself to promote a free and vibrant press in the 2019 general election manifesto, his near year term in office has been characterised by unfulfilled promises. In this article, Mmegi Staff Writer RYDER GABATHUSE follows President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s pledges of freeing the media space after a rough spell under his predecessor Ian Khama

FRANCISTOWN: Masisi previously exhibited striking similarities in his political beliefs and administrative style with his predecessor and mentor, former president Khama especially after he was appointed vice president.

Masisi’s stance even raised fears that he would perpetuate Khama’s passion of abhorrence for the local media once he took over the reigns of power.

At some point, a plot to sabotage the private media by starving it of advertising mainly because of the media being critical of government and the ruling party was leaked attributed to Masisi and others.

The leaked audio was given wider coverage across the pluralistic media. The threat would later be executed.

The effects of this decision were immediately felt across media houses as a majority of them ended up laying-off staff due to declining revenue given that the government is a main player even in this industry.

Fast-forward to 2018, Masisi made pledges to free the media space at the 2018 party elective congress in Tonota, where he easily mingled with the media practitioners.

On the sidelines of the BDP elective congress at the party’s luxurious marquee tent where meals were served, Masisi told the few media practitioners around the table that once he took over, he would see what changes he would effect.

The media wanted to know what changes he would immediately make to rescue the already choking industry in terms of his government support and commitment. By then, he was just freshly celebrating his re-election as the party chairperson.

The role of the private media should not be necessarily viewed from an extreme adversarial viewpoint, but rather through an attitude meant to force the ruling elite to remain accountable to the public.

Ruling parties across the world have a tendency of clamping down on the private press so that it does not report effectively on their excesses but rather dance to their tune. In a true democratic set up, the media has to be left to hold its leaders to account without necessarily being a friend to anybody.

In essence, the media seeks to create and sustain public debate. Journalists examine in a truly radical way the assumption and premises of community. The media’s role is to constitute public debate about, not within, the prevailing political order.

When Khama took over in 1998, he brought the government media under the Office of the President (OP) in an endeavour to control information, which is the best thing he wanted to do.

The government media is still controlled from the OP. But in its 2019 general election manifesto, the BDP pledged: “The BDP government is committed to a free and vibrant press. As a party, we will continue to provide cordial relations with the Press Council of Botswana, the Botswana Media and Allied Workers Union (BOMAWU) and the Botswana Editors Forum.”

The BDP further pledged to create a conducive environment in which the media can function without harassment. The party further promised that the BDP-led government would work toward developing a legislative framework that would allow the media to self regulate. During the elections month last year, President Masisi who was seeking re-election in his first term proper tweeted: “My BDP-led government and I have pledged to repeal the Media Practitioners Act of 2008 that restricted the freedom of the media. We support the Botswana media’s investigation of corruption at any level of society or the public service.”

Another tweet followed from the same Masisi Twitter account promising a free and independent media through legislation so the media can self-regulate and to maintain cordial relations with the Press Council of Botswana, the BOMAWU and the Botswana Editors Forum.

“Nobody in Botswana is above the law. I believe by further entrenching freedom of speech we can strengthen our democracy. No member of the government or public service should have anything to hide,” reads Masisi’s 2019 pledges to the media.

What is key a year later, is the fate of the Media Practitioners Act Bill and whether the Masisi-led government has created a conducive environment for the media especially the private media to thrive as a business.

Still on the matter, Dithapelo Keorapetse, Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) legislator for Selebi-Phikwe West recently captured his frustrations about the Media Practitioners (Repeal) Bill in an article that he authored in a local weekend publication.

The article in the WeekendPost reads in part: “When the Bill, which culminated into Act was first presented in Parliament in 2008, it was outrightly rejected by stakeholders such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), especially the Botswana Chapter. The Law Society of Botswana, publishers, journalists, editors and other pressure groups rejected the Bill then.”

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BOMAWU president, Phillemon Mmeso declared his worries at the way the BDP-led government was handling the Media Practitioners Act Bill.

He however, acknowledges that recently, Kabo Morwaeng, Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration wrote to the media union requesting a position letter on the disputed media law.

“Our position is that the Media Practitioners Act Bill should be repealed and if anything we start afresh considering the nature of our industry with a view to self regulation,” Mmeso told Mmegi this week.

He was quick to add: “Honestly speaking, I don’t know what’s happening with the BDP-led government with regards to the promises (of repealing the current Media Practitioners Act Bill). They are just moving in circles.”

His emphasis was that under normal circumstances, a person who moves in circles is “disingenuous”. He pointed his fingers at Morwaeng for failing to entertain the needs of the media industry.

Former Botswana Guardian editor and investigative journalist and co-founder of investigative outfit INK Centre for Investigative Journalism, Joel Konopo, when presenting his views about the Masisi administration towards the media, emphasised: “ Indications are that promises that have been made have not been kept. While there is open disdain for media (as it was the case during Khama’s administration) the pattern of intolerance continues.”

The investigative writer cites the Public Health Act as an extension of that old mistrust by the BDP government towards the private media.

He says crackdown on social media under the guise of fighting fake news, is a sign that President Masisi never committed to promoting and supporting an independent press.

The recent decision by the BDP MPs, highlights Konopo, to shoot down a motion that calls for the repealing of the Media Practitioners Act suggests that Masisi’s claim that he will promote an independent press was mere political sloganeering.

He stressed a need to also financially support media houses that have been heavily affected by the lockdown, “but this is unlikely to happen given the adversarial relationship between government and the press.”

Konopo suggested that it was unlikely to see improvement in relations during Masisi’s term in office because it appears the BDP policy towards the media would remain adversarial for a long time.

In summation, Konopo felt that Masisi has also, “succeeded where Khama failed in terms of dividing the media. Those who try to remain neutral have become objects of scrutiny and derision.”

University of Botswana (UB) lecturer in political and administrative studies, Adam Mfundisi said without the existence of the Freedom of Information Legislation, the discourse on Press Freedom is puerile.

He added that the legal environment is hostile to a free and independent press.

“The existence of the Media legislation, National Security Law, draconian provisions in the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act, DISS Act, and others throttle the independence of the media industry,” he said. In his view, the whole object of the current administration is to give an impression that much has changed in the relationships between government and the press while in essence there are no changes.

He was adamant that what has changed is that the government has been able to divide the private media.

“There are sections of the private media that have been captured by the state through preferential advertisements. This has led to co-opting the private media to silence critical media outlets and bolstering friendly ones. The government messages and disinformation reinforce each other through government media and private media,” the UB lecturer posited.

Increasing political polarisation, fake news and financial woes in the media industry, observes Mfundisi, negatively affects press freedom, providing an excellent opportunity for co-optation by political narcissists.

Mfundisi said he could not be proud of the economic, legal, and extralegal environment within which the media industry operates.

In addition, to the global challenges, he stresses that the advent of COVID -19 has throttled the growth and development of the media business in Botswana. He accuses the present regime of embarking on dismantling institutions of checks and balances and concentrating power in the presidency.

In the 2019 general election, he says, the present BDP political leadership co-opted the press to win elections.

To his dismay, this section of the press continues to prop up those in power. He emphasised that without freedom of information legislation, the press cannot operate freely, independently, and effectively.

“Lastly, charity begins at home. If the BDP and the President believe in a free press, they must turn the government media into a public media,” he threw the challenge to the BDP-led government.



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