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New press laws not welcome

In Botswana and Swaziland, proposed laws to control the press has not gone down well with media people. Journalists and media owners who fail to observe the laws will face stiff monetary fines and jail terms.
James Hall

Two proposed laws to curb journalists’ activities, one being promulgated in a nation considered to be Southern Africa’s showcase democracy, Botswana, and the other under consideration in sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Swaziland, show that governments of different stripes find press freedom a concept hard to tolerate.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) describes both laws as undemocratic and a danger to the liberties of Southern Africans.

"Governments have a difficult time accepting criticism, and with the rampant corruption, there is an interest among officials to curb investigative reporting, even if such reports only end in embarrassment rather than jail terms for offenders or remedial action," says one Swaziland newspaper editor, who sought annonymity.

MISA notes how swiftly repressive press legislation was enacted in Zimbabwe, where journalists may soon have to seek approval to ply their trade from a government that is consistently hostile to the press. But the licensing of journalists is also included in the Botswana and Swaziland legislations.

Both bills call for government media councils, whose members would be appointed by the ministers of information, to draw up codes of professional conduct. Journalists fear these codes will reflect their governments’ desire to restrict the free flow of information, rather than be a sincere effort to improve the standards of journalism.

"How can government officials know about the profession of journalism, our needs and the challenges we face?" asks freelance Swaziland reporter Abel Zwane.

Aidan White, the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in a statement said of the Botswana plan to set rules for journalists, and by inference commenting on the identical Swaziland effort, "(The bill) threatens to undermine efforts by media professionals to establish genuine self-regulation. The affairs of journalism and the ethics of our profession are best left to those with professional responsibilities. We urge the government of Botswana to withdraw this Bill in favour of a dialogue with journalists and media organisations."

The Swaziland legislation will give government’s media council the power to put on trial any reporter or editor who receives a complaint about any story from any person.

"A journalist might be perpetually on trial, based on mischievous complaints that may have no merit but are intended to hinder or harass the journalist," notes Comfort Dlamini, national representative in Swaziland for the Media Institute of Southern Africa. Dlamini notes that journalists will have to pay for the media council through the payment of annual licenses the new legislation requires them to obtain.

If found guilty of the media council’s self-defined code of conduct, a journalist may be fined an amount that is the equivalent of an average reporter’s annual net salary, plus face a prison term of up to five years.

"There are serious criminals who are not incarcerated for five years," notes one Swazi editor. "This shows how dangerous the ruling authorities consider the press to be. The leadership does do not wish to be exposed when things go wrong, and there is a belief among arrogant officials that press commentators should not dare to second-guess a government decision."

Aidan White, in a letter to Botswana President Festus Mogae, complained of the proposed media council’s punitive powers in that country, "There is no sense of balance in penalties which range from fines of up to 5,000 Pula (around US $1,000) and prison terms of up to 3 years. Such provisions amount to undue and unacceptable pressure on journalists."

In its own letter to the Botswana president, the Media Council of Southern Africa pleaded, "(We) respectfully implore you to uphold the principles of free speech and media freedom in any legislation affecting the media."

In Botswana, the media institute has worked with local journalists to set up a Media Complaints Commission which would discipline violators of press ethics. A similar effort has not been made in Swaziland. But pressure appears to be less in that country, where a Media Council Bill first proposed in 1998 seems to be languishing without resolution.

Parliamentarians considered the legislation last year, but were reluctant to proceed with a bill many MPs felt would blemish the country’s human rights record. The House of Assembly returned the legislation to the ministry of information for consultation with "media stakeholders."

Information Minister Mntomzima Dlamini has promised a media bill will "definitely" become the law of the land, but some media commentators have speculated his assurances were intended to placate conservatives in the Swaziland Senate who loathe the press, particularly the independent Times of Swaziland. Senators regularly investigate and levy fines on reporters and editors who incur their displeasure.

Swazi News editor Nimrod Mabuza infuriated MPs by persistently writing about "dishonourable members" who falsely claim seating allowances. "Rather than reform themselves," says one of Mabuza’s reporters, "the MPs want to shoot the messenger. It is the same as when the Senate fines (Times Sunday editor) Vusie (Ginindza) for his stories. The Media Council Bill is not more than a way to fine reporters, also, in a legal framework."

Comfort Dlamini of the Media Institute of Southern Africa agrees. "The Swazi government has insisted it wants to improve the professionalism of the media in this country. But the Media Council Bill is merely punitive. It sets up a mechanism to punish, but offers no provisions for training journalists to do better work."

No one denies that the standards of journalism in Swaziland need improving. Standards are slightly better in more affluent Botswana. But in both countries, as in Zimbabwe, governments have promulgated legislations intended to circumscribe and restrain journalists in their work, rather than assisting them to do better work.

One bright spot, media practitioners say, is that neither bill has been passed. A reason may be governments’ awareness of the response to repressive press legislation in Zimbabwe. Within a day of the legislation’s passage in Harare, the French-based press watchdog organization Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) sent a letter to the Presidency of the European Union calling for strong measures to be taken against Zimbabwe’s leaders, such as travel restrictions called for in EU rules that stipulate how rogue states that are human rights violators must be treated.

"A press free to pry and probe may be an annoyance, but government leaders feel economic sanctions are worse," says one Swazi journalist.

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