The country’s security apparatus this week demonstrated their disdain for press freedom when they descended on Mmegi and confiscated a cellular phone belonging to political reporter, Tsaone Basimanebotlhe.
Basimanebotlhe was indisposed and home at Lenganeng Block 4 ward in Tlokweng when four detectives from Broadhurst Police Station and Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) ambushed her with a warrant of entry, search and seizure issued by Magistrate Thandi Baleseng on July 19, 2019.
The applicant in this matter is the Botswana Police Service (BPS). The order was issued against Basimanebotlhe.
The mean looking and uncompromising officers forced their way into Basimanebotlhe’s living room and demanded that she produce her phones and computers. They explained to her that their mission was in relation to the ex-spy chief, Isaac Kgosi’s case in which he is being accused of exposing agents of the DIS to the public.
According to the charge sheet, count one of the offence is the prohibition of disclosure of identity. The particulars of offence are that the accused person, Kgosi, between February 18 and 25, 2019 in Gaborone took photographs of officers as well as the identity cards of the officers engaged in a covert DIS operation. On count two he is charged with obstructing officers and support staff.
“The accused person, Kgosi, on or about February 18, 2019 at Extension 6 obstructed X and Y who are officers of the DIS in the execution of their duties by verbally assaulting them,” the charge sheet reads.
Since they could not find any computer in Basimanebotlhe’s house, they confiscated the phone as ordered by Baleseng. The agents rebuked her when she called her editor, Oarabile Mosikare to inform him about the matter. Mosikare later arrived at the house in the company of colleagues, Innocent Selatlhwa and Mompoloki Rankgate.
The trio were also cautioned for distracting agents on duty and threatened with arrest. Later, Mmegi lawyer from Bayford and Associates Karabo Masuku met with some junior investigators at Broadhurst Police Station and notified them that if they did not return Basimanebotlhe’s phone in two days they would approach the courts of law for an application compelling the police to release the phone.
Responding to the attack, Mosikare said:
“We believe that it is an orchestrated move by the DIS and other embedded security agents to pry into the work of independent journalists. They are using the Kgosi case as an excuse to find out who Basimanebotlhe’s sources for some of the stories she writes about a certain political party. We won’t be intimidated by cowardice tactics employed by unprofessional security agents excited by the recent ‘ntole’ salary adjustments”.
He explained that sometime in March this year he deposed an affidavit to the police in which he told them that journalism principles do not allow him to reveal his sources.
Still on the matter, Mosikare asserted that: “I explained to them that I wrote the article and refused to tell them the source of the pictures. I reminded them that the police in their line of duty also do not reveal whistle blowers.
Why should journalists be an exception? Like I said, they want the identity of her sources.” Said attorney Masuku: “We give the police two days to conclude their investigations, if not we approach the court to apply for an order to release her phone”.
Likewise, the police also served Kgosi’s lawyers and bank relationship manager with subpoenas for search and seizure in a matter presently before court relating to the alleged exposure of the identity of DIS officers by the ex-spy chief.
One of those served with the subpoena was Lobatse legislator, Sadique Kebonang. Kebonang was hired by Kgosi to represent him in 2011 together with Advocate Sidney Pilane. The two successfully managed to prevent Kgosi’s prosecution.
Asked about the latest development, Kebonang confirmed the search and that Kgosi was not only a former client but remains a very dear personal friend. Whilst he was not concerned about the search itself, Kebonang was nonetheless concerned that Kgosi is being “persecuted over unfounded allegations”. He stated that, client-attorney confidentiality continues even after one has ceased being a client.
“They were hoping to find pictures that were allegedly taken by Kgosi so that they could say he disclosed the identity of officers to third parties. The magistrate has indicated that without such evidence he will throw out the case next week. So they are desperate.
In Lobatse they took old government computers that were there during the times of former MP Nehemiah Modubule,” Kebonang said. BLLAHWU condemns state harassment and intimidation of journalists
Meanwhile, the Botswana Land Boards Local Authorities and Health Workers Union (BLLAHWU) has condemned the harassment and intimidation of journalists by security agents. “We have learnt of acts of harassment and intimidation of journalists by security agents which came in form of invasion of the home of Mmegi’s political reporter Tsaone Basimanebotlhe and subsequent seizure of her phone,” BLLAHWU secretary general, Ketlhalefile Motshegwa said in a statement.
Motshegwa said they condemn the State intrusion in the media space as harassment and intimidation of journalists ultimately curtails media freedom and thereby putting democracy under siege.
These developments, clearly calculated to instil and spread fear amongst members of the Fourth Estate, are indeed catastrophic for Botswana’s democracy, he added.
“We call on the nation to be vigilant and jealously guard the tenets of our democracy by condemning such acts of intimidation sponsored by State agents under the pretext of conducting investigations.
We expect the public to oppose these barbaric acts because curtailment of media freedom will only result in the public being denied important national reports, keeping the leadership in check and in turn this further defeats the watchdog role which provides checks and balances as performed by the media.”
He also called for nurturing of democracy through promotion of not only freedom of the press but also freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Constitution. Parliament should move with speed to pass freedom of information bill, enhance and implement whistle blower laws to protect all whistle blowers, enact Declaration of Assets Bill and repeal the controversial Media Practitioners Act.
“Government should commit to lifting the advertising ban that has crippled the development and growth of the media, which is critical for promotion and development of our democracy.
We call on the BDP government to stop harassment and intimidation of journalists forthwith.”
The Botswana Media and Allied Workers Union (BOMAWU) also issued a statement yesterday saying it learnt with disappointment about an incident relating to the raid made by security agents at Basimanebotlhe’s house.
“We learn from Mmegi newspaper that the said agents have since confiscated Ms Basimanebotlhe’s mobile phone as permitted by a court order,” BOMAWU secretary general, Victor Baatweng said.
He said as a trade union for media workers in Botswana, BOMAWU was utterly disturbed by the incident as it has great potential to re-open room for violation of the very foundation of a free media.
“We also wish to remind this country’s court of laws about the dangers of setting a bad precedent relating to issuance of orders against key members of the society such as journalists.
While we respect the role played by both the courts of law and security agents, we are worried that incidents such as today’s could lead to intimidation of journalists and could have a negative effect on their ability to freely serve the nation.”
Baatweng further said they were of the view that there was an alternative way to obtaining information from Basimanebotlhe without necessarily confiscating her mobile phone.
“We therefore call for a cautious approach to cases such as this one and wish to encourage journalists to continue doing their noble jobs without fear nor intimidation.”