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Uproar over draconian Media Bill

Media activists in Botswana have again raised the alarm over a proposed draft Communications Bill, which they say will pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and the free flow of information.
Rodrick Mukumbira

The government recently indicated it would push ahead with the controversial Mass Media Communications (MMC) Bill, which journalists say is another attempt to muzzle the press and control editorial policy.

If passed by parliament, a government-appointed press council will be established to adjudicate on complaints and recommend disciplinary sanctions where necessary. Also, foreign journalists will be required to register before they can report on events in the country.

Observers have argued that the council would be redundant because the private media earlier this year set up a similar self-regulatory body.

The current MMC draft is a reworked version of the Bill presented to the media in 1997. At the time it was roundly condemned by rights groups and the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA), who said the practice of licensing journalists was "impractical, unwarranted and a serious potential threat to freedom of expression and the free flow of information".

After significant public outcry the government backed down and announced that the sections of the bill relating to the licensing and discipline of journalists, and the registration of newspapers, had been scrapped without replacement. The bill was never presented to parliament.

Although journalists and human rights observers generally consider the independent press in Botswana free, the government proved in 2002 that it is unwilling to tolerate negative coverage by state-controlled media.

In its 2002 report, the international watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), noted that in mid-April last year, the Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration, Daniel Mwelagobe, had berated reporters from the state-owned Botswana Television network (BTV) for insulting President Festus Mogae by broadcasting comments made by Neo Mothlabane, leader of the opposition Botswana People's Party. Mwelagobe, who is also secretary-general of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, warned BTV to sanitise its reports.

Another concern raised by media workers is the government s slow pace of considering proposals for freedom of information (FOI) legislation.

"The Freedom of Information Bill is not a priority for the new ministry, but some activities like information gathering and initial planning will start. Top priorities for this ministry are retooling [the] research, science and technology environment, and the development and diffusion of information and communication technologies for economic development to fight poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS and a mineral dominated country," the Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Boyce Sebetela, told journalists on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

"The passing of a Freedom of Information Bill is a big exercise and must be followed by the setting up of an agency to implement it. This will require substantial resources - buildings, people, vehicles, office equipment and many others - and thus substantial planning," he added.

However, Sebetela backtracked in August at a meeting of the Press Council of Botswana, a newly formed self- regulatory body formed by media organisations. He said while the government acknowledged that the media plays an important role in a democratic society, it should insist that a state-controlled regulatory mechanism be created to ensure adherence to professional ethics.

"I am of the belief that freedom of the press must also entail adherence to a professional code of ethics. The recent formation of the Press Council of Botswana is therefore very welcome in this respect."

He added: "We hope that they will address issues of concern that we sometimes see in our local media, which challenge the media on their professional ethics and, in particular, the media's responsibility to present both sides of the story; separation of reporters' opinions from facts; balancing 'bad news' with developmental reportage; and ensuring that headlines reflect the facts contained in the body of the story, rather than being sensational or scandalous, to 'sell' news."

Botswana has no policy on the release of information to the public. The main sources of the information on government are speeches made by ministers at official functions, in the National Assembly or on tours of their constituencies.

The country has endorsed the Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic African press, a statement of principles drawn up by journalists in Africa, whose main focus is the promotion of "the free flow of ideas by word and image among nations and within each nation".

Inquiries directed to government officials rarely elicit any meaningful responses to requests for further information. But Jeff Ramsay, Press Secretary to the President, admitted to a South African news agency recently that a free press had "a recognized role in promoting balanced and informed debate".

The local chapter of Transparency International tells the story of a researcher who wanted to write a guide to libraries in Botswana. The researcher approached the headquarters of the National Library Service (BNLS), for a list of addresses of their libraries.

Instead, the researcher was told to "obtain the express support of the Office of the President, as is required by the anthropological Act, or forget it!"

Said Cara Olsen, chairperson of the Press Council of Botswana, recently: "Private media need government support in order to deliver their promise of making information accessible to the people; support in the form of enabling legislation, which must conform to best international norms and practices, and to the provisions of our own constitution and Vision 2016."

The Vision 2016 development blueprint indicates that: "The freedom of the press must be guaranteed in law and practice. The media in Botswana must be deregulated in order to encourage citizen involvement in the dissemination of information."

It further says: "Botswana must introduce a Freedom of Information Act that will protect the rights of citizens to have access to information and to ensure the accountability of all public and private institutions."

The importance of the right of freedom of expression in sustaining a democratic society has become something of a thorny issue. "Botswana's newspapers are not the worst in the world," said Olsen.

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