Botswana's new media law 'repressive'

Botswana’s government says reporters have nothing to fear from a new media law, but a journalism advocate calls the law repressive and the official defence misleading.

The law is the first of its kind in Botswana. It creates a media council with complaints and appeals committees appointed by the minister of communications. The minister also appoints the council’s chief executive and can dissolve its executive committee.

The law aims to preserve media freedom and promote good ethical standards, as well as to “monitor the activities of the media” and create a body to “receive any complaints directed against media practitioners”.

However, Botswana already had an independent, self-regulated Press Council and press advocates allege the government is trying to assert state control over the media.

The law, which was supported by the governing party, was passed last year.

But lawmakers had asked for amendments and it had been expected to go to parliamentary committees for fine-tuning this year before becoming official.
Instead, the government published it in the official gazette over the end of the year holidays—making it law. The move caught many journalists by surprise.

In a written response to questions from the Associated Press, presidential spokesperson Jeff Ramsay said this week that the law does not require journalists to be accredited by the media council.

“If an individual does not wish to be accredited that is his or her prerogative,” Ramsay said.

“Unaccredited individuals, however, do run the risk of being seen as nonprofessionals.”

He also said the council will not have the power to impose fines and prison terms on journalists it determines have violated standards.

When news emerged that the measure had been put into law, Thapelo Ndlovu, national director of the Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, had called it “a very repressive law.”

Told of Ramsay’s comments, Ndlovu added: “It is simply not true to say registration is voluntary. Ramsay is misleading people.”

Ramsay’s “interpretation of the fines and penalties in the act is also misleading and is based on a personal opinion,” Ndlovu said.

Ndlovu’s institute brings journalists together to lobby for media rights.—Sapa-AP

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