State Media: Politics and power

Mass Media
Mass Media

Although we have talked ad nauseam about how democratic we are as Botswana, we have avoided transforming some of the institutions that are critical to our democracy such as the State News Media.

Only desultory attempts have been made to reform this institution since independence in 1966. In the following discussion we attempt to show why this institution was established and how it has been used as an instrument of national development and abused as a political propaganda tool.

In this discussion we adopt the title ‘State News Media’ because news is power. Let’s first agree that what we refer to as State News Media is nothing else but government information services.

Information Services is the umbrella title for Radio Botswana, Daily News, Botswana Television (Btv) and Kutlwano Magazine. These are the channels through which government information flows.

State News Media workers double up as news and current affairs reporters and government information officers. They are expected to be able to distinguish between government information, and news and current affairs.

They should also be able to distinguish between government information and ruling party propaganda.

Government information services channels have performed their function as instruments of national development very well over the years.

They have kept people informed about government development programmes and played a leading role in the development and preservation of culture.

No other institution has been able to bring Batswana closer than these channels. Their crews have traversed the length and breadth of this wide country negotiating their ways through rutted roads to record sights and sounds of what makes Botswana as a nation.

They managed to bring the far-flung areas closer together. The challenge comes when performing the function of news and current affairs. The spoiler here is politics. The government of the day and the ruling party become one thing. As we all know, politicians have an insatiable appetite for publicity. Publicity is the oxygen that fuels their energy and massages their ego. This is a commodity they do not want to share. Those controlling communication tools ensure they get maximum limelight.

The late Vice President Mompati Merafhe once said as the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) they were not prepared to share the limelight with the opposition.

The limelight should, therefore, be the preserve of those who control the powerful and well-resourced State News Media. You should also recall former minister Daniel Kwelagobe’s response to a criticism by Mmegi accusing him of interfering and undue censoring of Btv:

“I have always maintained that Radio Botswana remains government. We must have a medium that we can control and tell it what to do.” This was in February 2002 after Btv showed veterinary officers slaughtering cattle in Matsiloje following the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease.

There was an outrage in Matsiloje and DK gave Andrew Sesinyi and Oshinka Tsiang a tongue-lashing over the issue. Following that dressing down Oshinka bolted and joined BTA.

The political battle over the role of the State News Media started in the mid-1970s and intensified from the 1980s as the BNF was getting entrenched in Gaborone.

Before then, it was acceptable that the BDP was entitled to use the State News Media without being queried. They were in power and therefore the rightful custodians of State institutions.

In 1965 when Botswana held its first general election, the news media environment was different. The playing field was level when it came to news media exposure of political parties.

Radio Bechuanaland (precursor to Radio Botswana) was not known in much of the country. The Daily News and Kutlwano were mainly for public officers.

The literacy rate was very low for newspapers, if any, to influence voters. According to the 1964 Bechuanaland Census, of the three most heavily populated regions the literacy rate was below 50% of people aged 10 years and above: Francistown/Bokalaka had the highest literacy – 50.7% of males and 41.6% of females were literate followed by Serowe/Mahalapye/Bobirwa with 30.4% of the males and 35.1% of females and then Mochudi/Molepolole/Kanye/Gaberones/Lobatse with 16% of the males and 35% of the females were literate.

With this literacy rate and a radio service still a pilot project it is doubtful if the news media played any significant role in influencing the 1965 voting patterns.

Fast forward to the 1980s the news media environment had changed – independent newspapers were emerging and the State News Media embraced a slew of new technologies.

These technologies improved radio reception, provided more commodious offices, computers replaced the cumbersome typewriter, modern telecommunications replaced ‘Roger Roger’ and more educated young people were recruited.

With these developments the State News Media became an effective means of communication which enabled the government to reach the far and wide. Everybody looked at these organs as the best means to reach their targets.

However, access to these organs is controlled by the government. Ruling party leaders enjoy the highest exposure. This is not peculiar to Botswana but an African culture of political domination by those in power.

Although African countries have, since the 1980s, gone through some form of democratisation allowing multiparty elections, the ‘independence political parties’ have refused to let go of the control of State News Media. Their argument is that State News Media facilitates government communication with the people.

They cite the concept of ‘Development Journalism’, which is supposed to highlight development initiatives as the main focus of State News Media. However, this is just a ruse because politicians have hijacked this concept and development now means them. The President and ministers are THE NEWS!  

Let’s go back to where we started and explain why we say State News Media is nothing else but government information services. An excursion into the history of Bechuanaland will give us the answer. Our story starts way back during the colonial era when the colonial government was laying the foundation of independent Botswana.

Our exact date is October 1960 when the first information officer Major A. H. Donald was appointed to establish an Information Branch of the Bechuanaland Protectorate Government Reserve in Mafikeng, South Africa. He came to Bechuanaland on transfer from Basutoland.

After benchmarking in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), another British colony, Donald produced a report for the Resident Commissioner R.P. Fawcus: Report and Proposals for the Establishment of an Information Service in the Bechuanaland Protectorate January 1961.

This report is the foundation of what we today refer to as State News Media. So October 2019 marks 58 years of existence of Government Information Services.

The Information Branch was established for the Government to be in close touch with the people and maintain a continuous flow of factual information to a “public which could easily become a hostile public if government’s case was allowed to by default”.

Information assistants were provided with campaign vans to assist District Commissioners and other departments in their routine and extension work.

The branch started Kutlwano in January 1962 to complement the independent The African Echo/Naledi Ya Batswana newspaper published by Bantu Press in Johannesburg for Botswana readership.

In July 1964 Norman England, who was Press Officer in the Protectorate Government, started a stencilled four-page paper which became the Daily News. England became the first editor of what we today call Daily News.

By early 1964 Radio Bechuanaland was broadcasting for only two hours – 5.30pm to 7.30pm Monday to Friday.

Information Branch officers were civil servants expected to be loyal to the government: “There must never be any question about his being a loyal government servant.

As an employee of the Information Branch it is his job to see that wherever any government work can be facilitated by disseminating or by using means and media available to the Information Branch, he should do all he can so to facilitate it.

One special point he is being instructed not to attend political meetings, if he does, there is the risk of being regarded either as a party supporter or as a government spy”.

Other qualities of an information assistant were “loyalty, common-sense and a genuine effort to contribute material to ensuring that the people know what Government is doing, and ensuring that Government knows what the people are thinking”.

When Bechuanaland became Botswana in September 1966 the role of Information Services was embraced as outlined by the colonial government.

The only change has been the expansion of government operations which led to people demanding more information. This spawned exponential growth of Information Services - Radio Botswana, Daily News, Kutlwano and later Btv.

In 1969 the functions of Information Services were reviewed by a British consultant, Mr Hughes and he produced a policy directive outlining the functions as: To interpret the policy and actions of the government to the people; a) by a continuous service of information and public relations, and b) by campaigns and concentrated publicity on particular subjects;

To encourage and assist the people of Botswana to take an increasing interest in and responsibility for the economic, cultural and political development of their country; To advise government on public opinion and in the field of public relations generally; To develop and exploit media which will assist ministries and departments in performing their routine and extension duties;

To publicise Botswana outside its borders. In 1978 another British consultant Mr Lawrence was engaged and he formed the Department of Information and Broadcasting (DIB). He setup a central newsroom called Botswana Press Agency (BOPA). BOPA reporters inherited the field services function and focused on government activities in the districts.

For example, when a minister or MP arrives in a village, the reporter drops everything. The politician steals the village limelight.

The reporter’s life becomes a juggling act: playing the role of a news reporter and government information officer. In addition to being appendages of politicians on tour, information officers still liaise with other government departments – a function outlined by the colonial government in 1961.

Not much has changed in terms of editorial independence but only small and fragile concessions. Their fragility is found in the civil service stigma and being an extension of government operations.

The desire to control still lurks large in the minds of ministers. They pounce easily if they view reports as unfavourable to them.

As part of the civil service, State News Media managers and their officers grapple with a myriad of civil service rules and regulations daily.

They face restrictions and constraints imposed on their operations by rigours of regulations and political interference. As a result, Government reporters resort to self-censorship for self-preservation.

They have reached a stage where they regard self-censorship as a virtue than risk their job or deployment to other departments.

When the Ministry of Communications Science and Technology (MCST) was established in 2002 there was hope that maybe some modicum of editorial independence will be introduced.

DIB was transferred from Office of the President to MCST. A process was started to establish a national public service broadcaster.

With Boyce Sebetela as minister and Marianne Nganunu as permanent secretary, transformation looked possible because the two believed that broadcasting should be taken out of the civil service and allowed to grow separately away from the control by ministers.

As part of the envisaged transformation, a new department was to be formed to focus on promoting government policies and programmes and lift that burden on the news and current affairs sections of the State News Media.

In July 2003, DIB was split into Department of Broadcasting Services (Radio Botswana and Botswana Television), and Department of Information Services (Daily News, Kutlwano and BOPA).

Although Sebetlela and Mma Nganunu brought some fresh air, political pressure did not suddenly stop. It continued. For example, a Radio Botswana morning show programme Masa-a-sele anchored by Sakaeyo Jani and Laona Segaetsho attracted criticism from the Government enclave.

It was viewed as too lenient to callers who were critical of government. An instruction was issued to scrap the call-in segment of the programme.

Secondly, Btv was also banned from covering political rallies but only those by the President and Vice President. It was the 2004 general election year.

BDP candidates benefitted from the Btv political rallies ban because they made sure they were launched by either the President or Vice President knowing that Btv would be there.

After the 2004 general election, Sebetlela was dropped from the Cabinet and Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi took over at MCST. She came at the time when Btv was under intense pressure: the opposition was complaining that it was being used to prop up the BDP.

Cabinet Ministers criticised Btv for lack of professionalism and being unfairly critical of government. Pressure was also put on the Daily News and BOPA. Venson-Moitoi instructed that the journalistic tenet of newsworthiness should not apply when covering Parliamentary debates, but reporters should cover all MPs’ comments without judging their news value.

This instruction was incongruous with the journalism profession but it had to be obeyed. Despite these hiccups, the public service broadcaster initiative was in the upswing.

In 2007 DBS signed an agreement with Swedish Radio and Swedish Television to start the transformation process. Swedish experts trained DBS staff and some were sent to Sweden for benchmarking.

Unbeknownst to us, not everybody in the Cabinet supported the envisaged transformation. Some were openly hostile to the idea. Venson-Moitoi proposed her own board to oversee broadcasting without transforming DBS. In Parliament Minister Ponatshego Kedikilwe described the idea as “go ithaba thipa mpeng” (committing Hari-kari-ritual suicide by disembowelment).

The enthusiasm of transforming state broadcasting waned as the days of Festus Mogae at the State House drew to a close. When the new administration came in April 2008 the process was thwarted and the Swedish consultancy was diluted to offer only training.

There was even an attempt to expel the Swedes, but Mma Nganunu sought advice from Foreign Affairs and a potential diplomatic embarrassment was averted. The Swedes were saved but some DBS officers were deployed out of the department.

The department haemorrhaged staff because of lack editorial independence. Mma Nganunu, with her genial disposition, always wanted her officers to be happy, but she watched helplessly as some were being shipped out: “I don’t know why they are doing this to other people,” she lamented.

After the 2009 general election, the final nail was drilled into the coffin of the public service broadcasting initiative – State News Media departments were yanked out of MCST and transferred to Office of the President.

Unless radically transformed after this election, the State News Media will be one of the areas of serious contest in future general elections.

Political parties have talked of constitutional reforms but little, if any, has been said about the future of State News Media. This institution should be constitutionally protected to guard against political abuse which could lead to violence in future.

The same goes for the kgotla institution which has been blatantly politicised with the acquiescence of Dikgosi. To safeguard Botswana’s fragile democracy and stop the abuse of incumbency at election time, the new government should rearrange the State News Media and create two institutions: a public service broadcaster as it was envisioned under Sebetlela and Mma Nganunu; and a more focused and pro-active government communication and information system.

The public service broadcaster should be a creation of Parliament with a clear mandate, independent editorial charter and answerable to an independent and representative board not minister. Such a public service broadcaster will attract the Crème de la crème of the available young media professionals.

Presently staff recruitment is controlled by DPSM. Politics also plays a significant influence on who gets employed. Many young people from University of Botswana were in the past rejected because they were not politically acceptable.

This weakness has bedevilled the State News Media for many years because the recruitment process does not always attract the best but allows even candidates with mediocre abilities to be employed.

In April 1988 a UNESCO consultant from Zambia, Crosby Mwanza, advised DIB to change its recruitment pattern in order to allow for the recruitment of people with requisite talent and aptitude for journalism as a career. Mwanza was running in-service training and he noticed a serious dearth of talent in some of those already employed.

The situation did not change and DIB continued recruiting people who did not have the right talent and aptitude to either be broadcasters or print reporters.

Control of the State News Media by the government has hampered intellectual development, free thinking and internal debate and instead provided a breeding ground for sycophants. Some officers have cosy relations with politicians and ingratiate themselves with ministers by snitching on colleagues.

To wean government off the State News Media dependency, the new government should merge the BGCIS and Department of Information Services to create a Government Communication and Information System which will function as a two-way bridge allowing information traffic from the government to the people and from the people to the government.

To further improve communication, the government should also allow community broadcasting or give the public service broadcaster the function to operate community or regional-based broadcasting services linked to the main service. The government should also decide if it is still financially prudent to continue publishing the Daily News.

That much said let’s part ways with this extreme example of how to control the news media: If you have read the history of World War II you must have come across the name Joseph Goebbels.

He was Adolf Hitler’s friend, confidant and propaganda minister. According to his biographer, Peter Longerich, in March 1933 Goebbles told newspaper publishers and the German Press Association, that they should perceive that it was an ideal state of affairs if the press – “is like a piano in the hands of the government, on which the government can play”. 

Over my 20 years with the State News Media, there were times when one felt some ministers would have preferred the Goebbles route of controlling the news media.

*Bapasi Mphusu is former Director of Broadcasting Service; Director of Information Services and was Private Secretary to the former President Festus Mogae.

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