One of Botswana’s largest newspapers was the victim of a cyber attack last week that wiped out 12 years of archive material – and its editor has pointed a finger at the country’s shadowy Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS).
The website of the country’s only privately owned daily newspaper, Mmegi, was hit by “interference” last Thursday, according to its online developers, Lifemedia.
There was an attempt to hack the website 10 days earlier, said Garai Makaya, Lifemedia’s owner.
In the run-up to Botswana’s general election in October last year, the signal of a private radio station, Gabz FM, was interrupted after it had broadcast its first election debates, in which the government was sharply criticised. An inquiry by the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority found there was a possibility of interference, but made no finding about the origin of the interruption.
But Botswana’s Sunday Standard reported that the directorate had bought equipment that enabled it to interrupt radio signals and monitor newsrooms.
The directorate, which answers only to President Ian Khama and has vaguely defined and wide-ranging powers, is seen as an important factor in Botswana’s deteriorating media climate.
Hacking the hacks
In an interview this week Mmegi’s editor, Ntibinyane Ntibinyane, said the hacking of the newspaper’s website occurred at a time when it was publishing damning information about the directorate’s director general, Isaac Kgosi, who has been described as the most feared man in Botswana.
Mmegi had reported on documents and video material leaked to the newspaper on the interrogation of Kgosi by the Directorate of Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) about large sums of money that he allegedly amassed after his appointment as DIS chief.
Kgosi’s interview, conducted by the DCEC director, Rose Seretse, and former deputy director, Donald McKenzie, was recorded in 2012. It has never been publicly aired.
Kgosi could not be reached by phone this week and did not respond to questions sent by SMS.
“We suspect at this moment that the intelligence organ may have been behind the hack,” Ntibinyane said. “We have been reliably informed by our sources that the spy agents were under the impression that we were about to post some of the material online at the time the site was hacked.
“We have since established with certainty that the hackers are based in Gaborone.”
Ntibinyane said that Mmegi’s website is one of the most secure in Botswana and that “what happened clearly shows that the hackers used sophisticated technology”.
“We are currently working around the clock to further secure the site.”
Ntibinyane’s concerns were echoed by the Botswana chapter of the nongovernmental organisation, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, whose national director, Buyani Zongwane, said he suspected “the notorious DIS”.
“Lately Mmegi has been publishing reports on the missing tape of the DIS boss, and the hackers apparently want the information the newspaper has,” he said.
“The hacking was done by someone who is aggrieved, and who is well resourced and equipped.”
Makaya said that the first attack on the Mmegi site had not done much damage. However, the hackers had left a Twitter handle, #13gion, which the paper’s IT staff had tried to follow. “As soon as they noticed we were on their trail, they locked their Twitter handle, which made our life a bit more difficult.
“Then 10 days later, while we were still investigating, we were hit by a total blackout.”
Makaya said that online archives stretching back 12 years were deleted, but that some of the material had since been retrieved and recovery efforts were continuing.
Mmegi’s new media co-ordinator, Tlhalefang Charles, confirmed that the newspaper was “in possession of some damning video material that we have in reported on. We strongly believe that someone might be of the view that the video will be posted online.
“Mmegi remains committed to the principles of journalism and won’t be cowed into submission by anyone.”
The Directorate of Corruption and Economic Crime began investigating Kgosi at least three years ago, but appears to have made little progress.
Earlier this month, Mmegi reported that, in the videotaped interview with Kgosi, the officials questioned him about how he had allegedly acquired one million pula (about R1.2-million) from Louis Nchindo, the former managing director of the partly state-owned diamond company Debswana.
They also asked him about vehicles stockpiled by the directorate that were allegedly registered in the names of private individuals.
Other questions involved allegedly questionable recruitment practices by the directorate, which did not follow procedures laid down by the public service department.
‘Crackdown’ on independent media in Botswana
Fear has gripped Botswana’s media fraternity after what is seen as a
co-ordinated campaign against journalists, including break-ins at homes, the theft of laptops, intimidating phone calls and the arrest of an editor.
Cyber attacks on the media, most recently on the website of the Mmegi newspaper, are seen as part of the trend that the Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) traces to the run-up to the hotly contested general election in October last year.
The Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) has been blamed for some of incidents.
Misa’s national director, Buyani Zongwane, said: “The situation deteriorated as we approached the election. The ruling party was feeling pressure and the media, especially the private media, became scapegoats.”
In June last year the Directorate of Corruption and Economic Crime won an interdict against the Sunday Standard newspaper that prevented it from reporting on its investigation of intelligence directorate head Isaac Kgosi.
In September the editor of the Sunday Standard, Outsa Mokone, was arrested and spent a night in jail after the paper reported that President Ian Khama was involved in a car crash while driving through Gaborone at night. Mokone was later charged with sedition.
The journalist who wrote the article, Edgar Tsimane, fled to South Africa, where he successfully applied for asylum.
The following day plainclothes officers thought to be from the DIS raided the paper’s offices, seizing documents and equipment.
Before and after the October election, the homes of at least four journalists were broken into. Nothing was taken except laptops. Most journalists in Botswana also claim that their cellphones are tapped.
Another worrying development is the growing trend towards media ownership by allies of the government and the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.
Business interests constitute a growing pressure. The Patriot on Sunday, for example, was prevented from printing recently after it ran a lead story about the vindication of businessperson Satar Dada, a close friend of the paper’s owner.
Botswana Gazette editor Kealeboga Dihutso said there are “certainly some actions that suggest government is attempting to control the media. There are attempts to get the state-owned media to charge less than market rates to squeeze out the private media. Occasionally overzealous government officers seek to control the media by starving it of adverts, although there’s no government policy to do so.”
Phillimon Mmeso of the Patriot on Sunday, said the media climate is becoming less tolerant under the current government.
“The government views private journalists as the enemy. It is putting pressure on freedom of expression and the recent government efforts to stop advertising in certain media houses reflects that.
“Junior reporters, especially those who have just joined the profession, are afraid to report on certain issues, especially those that touch on the ruling elite, out of fear of being harassed like their seniors.”
Mmeso said another looming difficulty for journalists was that “friends of the government” are buying media houses.
“The ruling elite is now penetrating the media industry by owning certain publications and censoring certain news stories,” he said.
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