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BOTSWANA: Deep Divisions Remain Over Media Law

Ephraim Nsingo

GABORONE, May 13 2009 (IPS) - While the international theme for World Press Freedom Day was “Fostering Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation”, the Botswana government and the media seemed to take the opposite route – taking turns to snub each other’s calls for dialogue.

Journalists protest new media law requiring, among other things, registration and accreditation of journalists and an enforced right to reply. Credit:  Ephraim Nsingo/IPS

Journalists protest new media law requiring, among other things, registration and accreditation of journalists and an enforced right to reply. Credit: Ephraim Nsingo/IPS

Hopes of engagement on the recently-enacted Media Practitioners Act (MPA) seemed to shrink on May 6 when media practitioners filed a legal notice against the government. The tension escalated the following day when a top government official rebuffed a panel discussion on the new law organised by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Botswana chapter.

After honouring his invitation and arriving at the event on time, all seemed to be on track that government spokesperson, Jeff Ramsay, would take part. And indeed, he was the first to take his place on the podium. But when it was his turn to speak, Ramsay shocked the audience by using the platform to merely state that he would no longer participate.

“Last month I willingly accepted an invitation from MISA-Botswana to participate in this panel. I did so in the context of government’s continued willingness to openly engage with stakeholders and the general public on issues surrounding the Media Practitioners Act, as passed by parliament last year,” Ramsay told the audience.

“It has, however, come to my attention that a legal notice relevant to tonight’s panel topic was received by the Attorney General’s Chambers yesterday (May 6), which was moreover authored by tonight’s moderator [Mr Batsho Nthoi]. Given these facts, as well as additional information that has also come to my attention over the last 24 hours, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it would be inappropriate for me to take any further active part in these proceedings.”

The media lobby, stunned by Ramsay’s reaction to their registration of the statutory notice, has defended its actions.

“The step brings to substance the publishers resolution in March 2009 in which they resolved to take the legal route in their quest to have the law repealed,” reads a MISA statement.

“Among other issues, the notice challenges clauses of registration and accreditation of journalists, enforced Right to Reply, as well as its implications on the constitution of the country and its international commitments. The notice continues to call on the courts to declare the Act as invalid.”

Civil society activists outside the media have also been drawn into the drive to contest the MPA and its impact on access to information and freedom of expression.

“This law is basically draconian and is very limiting and will shut down the space for meaningful debate on key issues,” argued Diana Moswele, a policy advisor with the Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/Aids (BONELA).

South Africa-based media lawyer Lloyd Kuveya explained that the new law could impact negatively on Botswana’s international standing.

“What has happened has shocked many people who have always praised Botswana as a successful democracy.”

But not everyone supports a total rejection. Journalist Regis Maburutse of the Business Diary publication rounded on the media for boycotting debate on the MPA when it was still a Bill.

“The law was passed, and now we are crying foul. A militant stance will not work, we need to be diplomatic with the government because this is now law, and they can enforce it anytime.”

University of Botswana law academic, Mike Mothobi, has also advocated for a less confrontational stance. “We need to have a system of both self and statutory regulation. This is what in my view the new law seeks to achieve.”

Civil society and the media are being backed by the country’s main opposition party, the Botswana National Front (BNF). In a solidarity statement, BNF spokesperson, Moeti Mohwasa, accused the government of having “overplayed its hand to the extent of putting its palm on the mouths of the people” which he described as “an affront to democracy”. There is also unease with the MPA in the ranks of the ruling party.

After numerous standoffs over the MPA in 2008, President LT. Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama met a delegation of the Botswana Editors Forum on April 20. The parties seemed, for the first time since the enactment of the law, to draw closer to each other. A follow up meeting on May 6 appears to have been similarly conciliatory. But the legal action by publishers has evoked a new round in the tit-for-tat battle and has set the stage for a bruising battle ahead.

In an address to a protest march staged by journalists in the capital, Gabarone on May 9, the secretary general of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, Reverend Prince Dibeela, said it was “ironic” that the Botswana government, was an “outspoken critic” of Zimbabwe, yet it was “plagiarising their laws” and over regulating the country.

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