Editor charged with sedition for publishing story of Botswana president's car crash
The Lobatse high court will soon hear a bizarre sedition case against a prominent Botswana newspaper editor, which is damaging the country’s standing as a bastion of democracy and media freedom in Africa.
Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone will stand trial on June 8 before Judge Jennifer Dube on charges under sections 50 and 51 of Botswana’s Penal Code, which outlaw any “intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against the person of the president or the government of Botswana as established by law”.
Mokone’s transgression was to publish a report about a car accident involving President Ian Khama, who was driving alone through Gaborone at night and failed to report the incident.
The reporter, Edgar Tsimane, has skipped the country, claiming his life has been threatened, and is in exile in Pretoria. He, too, faces a possible sedition charge and believes it is not safe for him to go home.
This is the first time a Botswana journalist has been charged with sedition, which lawyers say carries a maximum three-year jail sentence.
The case has fuelled the country’s decline in world press freedom and governance rankings. Botswana ranks as partially free, according to Freedom House, which is a significant drop compared to its previous position.
Reacting to the news, the United States state department said it was deeply concerned about Mokone’s arrest, as it was inconsistent with the fundamental freedoms of expression and the press, and “at odds with Botswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance”.
The Sunday Standard story appeared on the front page on September 1 2014, and was headlined “President hit in car accident while driving alone at night”.
Tsimane obtained his information from staff members at Gaborone’s Montana Lodge, where the other party to the accident, a Zambian national, Mabita Kaunda, was staying on the night of the accident, on Saturday August 23.
Kaunda, said to be a regular at the lodge, was not interviewed directly by Tsimane and subsequent efforts to trace him were unsuccessful.
According to an employee at the lodge, Kaunda was visibly
shaken when he came into the hotel and told them that, at 10pm, he had
rear-ended a black Range Rover driven by Khama.
He allegedly said that his vehicle, a Jeep, was removed by the presidential guard, who then drove him to the lodge.
The president is known to use a black Range Rover for private purposes.
Although Kaunda had minor head and neck injuries, according to hotel staff, he had agreed with one of Khama’s aides that he would not seek hospital treatment. Staff said they gave him painkillers.
They also said the Zambian left the next day, claiming to have been given a replacement Jeep by the presidential guard, who kept his vehicle. Tsimane said he was unable to establish why or whether this was done.
Police told the Sunday Standard that no one had reported the alleged accident.
Tsimane said in his article that, “in an apparent bid to conceal the accident, the president violated the country’s road traffic laws and failed to report the accident within the prescribed 48 hours”.
He insists that his sources were credible. “They are ordinary people who could not be suspected of harbouring any motives against the president.
“Even when they were questioned by our lawyers to establish the veracity of the story, they were consistent in recounting what happened.”
Shortly after publication, Mokone received a threatening letter from the attorney general, Athaliah Molokomme, which seemed related to an entirely different incident, involving different vehicles in a different place and at a different time.
Molokomme’s letter referred to a car crash that took place on the morning of August 23 in the village of Dibete, 120km north of Gaborone.
It said: “On Saturday 23rd August 2014, at about 09:00, a collision took place between a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUV and a private Ford Ranger on the A1 road at Dibete.
“His excellency the president was neither the driver of nor a passenger in either vehicle.”
Molokomme denied anyone was injured in the accident, adding that “no compensation or new vehicle has been given or offered to the driver or owner of the Jeep”.
The Jeep driver — another discrepancy from the earlier reference to “a Ford Ranger, not a Jeep” — “was not taken to any location by the presidential guard”, she added.
She said her office “has taken a very serious view of this matter, which suggests that head of state has undermined his oath of office under the Botswana Constitution, in which he undertook to faithfully and diligently discharge his duties and perform his functions in the high office of president of the Republic of Botswana.”
She demanded that Mokone provide a written explanation for his conduct by midday Wednesday September 3 and the publication of a full retraction in the Sunday Standard. He refused to do both.
The sedition charge that followed surprised many people, who suspect that Khama is behind it. There has been much speculation over why the news report sparked such a fierce reaction.
The chairperson of the Law Society of Botswana, Lawrence Lecha, said, for the offence under section 50(1) to be established prima facie, the prosecution had to show that the article incited “hatred or contempt” against Khama.
Lecha said the society “cannot believe” that the article could cause “the eventualities contemplated by section 50 (1) of the Penal Code. The issue was not whether the article or parts of it were true or false, but “whether the facts and circumstances can sustain a charge of sedition”.
Tsimane is in South Africa on a three-month permit, although he has applied for political asylum. He insists he is not afraid of facing the law but he was advised to skip the country by a close contact in the intelligence service.
“I received intelligence that, if I really valued my life, I should seek sanctuary beyond Botswana’s borders,” he said.