In every election year, journalists and media houses apparently become the ‘worst enemies’ of political parties and politicians alike. Accusations fly thick and fast that some journalists and media houses choose to abandon their watchdog role and become lapdogs of the ruling elite. Mmegi Staff Writer RYDER GABATHUSE follows the story
FRANCISTOWN: Battles have been fought in the social media space, in the pages of some newspapers and the electronic media with political organisations and politicians coming face-to-face with journalists and media houses.
In some instances, these battles have become so ugly that they have been personalised and fought with anything at the parties’ disposal. Politicians will carry the battles to the freedom squares whilst media practitioners will use their available platforms to leverage their fights.
It is undisputable that the media is critical to electoral processes and it has the potential to impact voter behaviour and electoral assistance as journals reflect.
The media serves critical roles throughout the electoral process and in addition to promoting public debate and educating citizens, they monitor the integrity of the process and can be a primary vehicle for accountability demands. As such, the media cannot simply be wished away as a partner. Perhaps more than ever before, the media has the potential to significantly impact perceptions and behaviours during elections.
These incessant battles however, become even more pronounced during an election year where political activity is heightened as a matter of fact. In most cases, the media finds itself at the receiving end with politicians accusing practitioners of bias and being bought. For instance, there has been a false story peddled by some people that former president Ian Khama has placed some reporters on his payroll to advance his narrative.
Adam Mfundisi, University of Botswana lecturer of political and administrative studies has observed over some period now since the ascendance to power of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, a disturbing trend in media houses and journalists alike.
His concern is that some news organisations have become propaganda machinery for the ruling party. To his considered view, the media deviated from being watchdogs but lapdogs dancing the tunes of those in power.
“Some started to change since being invited to the State House and media briefings by President Masisi. They began to be cheerleaders unable to make government and its leaders accountable for the use of national resources,” he says further adding that some media outlets and journalists resorted to gutter journalism.
Mfundisi is worried that in the meantime, they have adopted a narcissistic behaviour in which they have become conduits for spreading what he bluntly calls fake news as malicious propaganda against opponents of the ruling elite.
“In other words, it seems they have been captured by powerful forces in the country,” he buttressed his point.
The UB don analyses that President Masisi took advantage of the weaknesses of the media in Botswana to use it for his own political agenda and battles.
“This has spared the State media from being used as propaganda machinery for the government and its leadership. What we perceive as media freedom is merely the abandonment of journalistic ethics and accountability,” observed the UB political scientist and was quick to accuse some sections of the private media to have been relegated to the gutters and unable to hold those in power to account for rampant corruption.
Mfundisi was quick to point at the weaknesses of the media, which contribute to its treatment by the ruling class.
“If it becomes critical to the corrupt government, it will be treated the same it were during former president Ian Khama and Masisi administration. President Masisi and his media gurus took advantage of the poor state of the media to their advantage.”
His observation is that some media was at the beginning of Masisi and his Vice President Slumber Tsogwane’s administration in poor financial situations. And therefore, it became easier to exploit their financial problems to the advantage of the incoming administration. Poor journalistic tradition of independence also worked to the advantage of the present regime, he posited.
There is a disturbing trend in which Mfundisi is adamant that some journalists seem to be serving certain interests at the detriment of public interests.
“Some media outlets and journalists have become instruments of government. They are fed with propaganda information dubbed intelligence snippets from security sources.”
This information, Mfundisi says, “is treated as gospel stories spread continuously in line with Hitler’s Gestapo philosophy that false information spread continuously turns into the truth. Yellow journalism has become the norm rather than the rule”.
He decries that journalistic narcissism is pervasive and will erode public confidence on the media.
The media can easily build peace and tranquility but can do the opposite with serious ramifications. Government may be content with the erosion of journalistic ethics but in the long run it may cause political turmoil in the country.
“Fake news”, he contends, “can be harmful to national security. Some media spread rumours about the security of the State President and no action is taken against them or a State version of events is not tendered. This will embolden them to engage in notorious political posturing, which endanger our peace and stability.”
Mfundisi is tempted to conclude that the crop of journalists and media houses we have do not uphold the highest standards of journalism.
He adds: “They have become instruments of government and individuals who control the economic and political landscape. They have deviated from journalistic principles of balanced reporting and allowing the condemned to state his or her side of the case”.
In conclusion, Mfundisi says that there are a minority of journalists who are unwavering in their journalistic independence.
“But the majority of them have become agents of the corrupt politicians and businessmen. They have been relegated to the gutters spreading debris information to protect their political masters. They have become enemies of our democracy spreading hate politics,” was the UB academic’s parting shots.
Batlang Seabo, senior lecturer of politics, department of political and administrative studies at the UB acknowledges that it is possible that some media practitioners may have deviated from their professional ethics and write stories that may not be true.
“But in terms of whether some have been sponsored to push certain agendas, it remains only a perception in the absence of evidence to validate such claims. I cannot say it is happening simply on the basis of public perception because at times such perceptions are driven by emotive partisan attachments,” he observed.
In his view, the media is free to carryout their duties under the current administration and the political environment is conducive for journalists to report on anything without fear or favour.
This has been ascertained and guaranteed by the current President’s seeming tolerance of media, first hosting practitioners at the State House and embracing them as partners in the process of development and second addressing press conferences.
“So in my view, the political climate now is less hostile to journalists than ever before. I must admit that it has only been a year since the current President ascended to power but I think on the basis of his interaction with media thus far, I believe media will be more free to report should he be given a mandate in the coming elections.”
He concurs that it would be quite unfortunate if members of the Fourth Estate that is so crucial to the survival of democracy were to deliberately abandon their ethics and drive agendas of certain people.
But he couldn’t say with certainty and beyond reasonable doubt that some journalists have neglected their ethics to pursue other people’s agendas. However, if it is happening and left unchecked by media regulatory bodies and editors, it has the potential to inflict profound and incurable harm to society through misinformation.
“In worst case scenarios an irresponsible media can incite instability in the country as was the case in the Rwandan genocide,” he cautioned.
In Seabo’s view, the media is doing a tremendous job in acting as a watchdog for democracy and guaranteeing checks and balances in the country’s institutions.
“Otherwise National Petroleum Fund and other corruption scandals in Botswana Railways, CMB and others would have never seen the light of day. Some journalists have risked their lives before to bring such issues to the fore, and some have been arrested while others received death threats in the line of duty,” Seabo posits and added that challenges are there as it is the case everywhere.
In the main, he is of the view that the media has contributed immensely to this country’s democracy through informing society, exposing corruption and indeed ensuring that leaders uphold accountability and transparency.
He calls it grave injustice to simply label media as a bunch of irresponsible people without any contribution to the state of democracy. He stresses: “The media is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy and Botswana is not an exception. It is therefore, expected that the media must perform its duties objectively and guided by ethics and principles of professional journalism”.
In the case of Botswana, he believes that the media tries to adhere to their codes of ethics in the line of duty, “but I cannot deny that some have backslidden and fell into the temptation of writing falsehoods, sensationalising issues, and perceptions run thick and fast about certain politicians and parties being targeted”.
All these, he however believes, have a context, because at times the political economy within which the media operates is very rough and competitive.
“Media, particularly private newspapers have to sell, besides their advertising revenue, as such catchy front page stories that at times do not have substance become commonplace and people end up being sold substance-void and recycled stories. Is this right? Absolutely not!”