Botswana journalists cry foul over media Bill

Journalists in Botswana are up in arms over the draft Media Practitioners Bill. Quietly published in the Government Gazette on June 27, the Bill would give the government greater control over the media.

Botswana’s media bodies say the news media are already regulating themselves through the Press Council, which was established six years ago, and that the government is seeking to impose itself on the media sector.

‘We have a self-regulatory Press Council, which we believe is working, but the government appears to want to interfere with the way it is working. If [the government] believes there is something it can add, it should assist and not try to take over,” said Thapelo Ndlovu, director of the Botswanan chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

‘Talking about the establishment of a press council is somewhat a misnomer, for there already exists the Press Council for Botswana, set up by the Botswana media as part of its self-regulatory initiative. What is being introduced by the Bill is control of the media by government,” said Dick Bayford, a media activist and lawyer who was instrumental in registering the Press Council of Botswana as a trust in 2002.

Bayford said the new Bill would give the government the power to determine who can and cannot practise journalism ‘through the complaints committee [which is appointed by the minister], which has the power of suspending registration of a practitioner or totally removing his or her name from the register [of journalists]”.

The draft Media Practitioners Bill stipulates that no journalist resident in Botswana may work in the country unless he or she is registered and accredited by a government-appointed ‘executive committee”.

The executive committee will work under a chief executive accountable to the minister of communications, science and technology, who is also the committee’s chairperson.

Media watchdogs in the region have roundly criticised the Bill.

‘The Bill is not media-friendly in that it contains draconian elements rejected in earlier Bills drafted in 1997 and 2003 — for example, the issue of the accreditation and registration of journalists by government,” said Ndlovu.

‘Where we see the same process in application, as in Zimbabwe, the results are horrific. Government enjoys the prerogative of determining who is entitled to report on events in Zimbabwe, creating a situation where journalists will run the risk of being jailed for trivial things like not being properly registered,” he said.

Ndlovu notes that it is ironic that the Botswanan government should criticise the Zimbabwean government for its mishandling of elections while at the same time replicating its repressive media regulations.

An additional element of the Bill is a ‘right to reply”.

‘This Bill also imposes on editors the right to reply, which is a clear violation of editorial independence. The right of reply should remain [the] prerogative of the editor as gatekeeper. People can abuse [a] right of reply if there is no gatekeeper,” said Ndlovu.

Government representatives have defended the Bill, arguing that it has been approved by media organisations in the country.

‘The Bill is a product of consensus. The first draft was issued to representatives of the media at a media advisory council meeting which was chaired by the minister. The media advisory council is a subcommittee of the high level consultative council, which is chaired by the President,” said Andrew Sesinyi, the deputy permanent secretary at the ministry of communications, science and technology.

He said that the media, like other professions, should accept they have to abide by laws. ‘We, as journalists, should not contradict ourselves and want to practise our profession in a legal vacuum. Presently the Press Council does not have any teeth. It needs to be recognised under the law.

‘This [move] is necessary to empower the Press Council and to promote an atmosphere of accountability, mutual trust and respect between media practitioners and the public. There is no profession in the world where — professionals are not registered or accredited, journalists included. Registration and accreditation of journalists are undertaken to empower them.

‘We have examples of decisions by the Press Council upon which some of the clients have not acted because it does not have recognised legal standing. The Bill recognises the code of ethics drawn up by media practitioners themselves,” he said.

According to the Media Practitioners Bill, a person who contravenes any provision of the legislation may be fined up to R5 000, or imprisoned for up to three years, or both.

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