We live in a divided political environment and amid radical economic disparities. But there is one thing on which virtually everyone in Botswana agrees: most of the news and information we are fed is biased.
There are constant complaints about bias, from readers and politicians alike. These complaints are not groundless. As director of Botswana’s only independent investigative journalism unit, and a former newspaper editor, I have seen first-hand how the narrative offered by journalists in Botswana is all too often directly influenced by politicians; and how the close relationship between politicians and journalists leaves the media too weak to hold the powerful to account.
When I became a journalist, I was animated by the adversarial — but not belligerent — journalistic ethos that I saw among some veteran journalists. They were committed to speaking truth to power, rather than increasing their number of Facebook followers. This commitment is, sadly, disappearing. Today, too many editors and influencers are cheapening our profession and degrading our reputation for high standards.
We live in a world in which journalism and freedom of information run up against an invisible wall consisting of money and conflicting interests. Does Botswana have the tools to guard against political and commercial interests bent on exploiting the fourth estate?
When leaks become smears
Recent controversies at established media outlets suggest not. In October last year, for example, some sections of supposedly “friendly” private media — friendly to the government, that is — were fed sanctioned leaks by Botswana’s intelligence agency, the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services. These allegations were immediately treated as a matter under official investigation, without the slightest attempt to verify them.
Using the leaks, the Sunday Standard newspaper claimed that South African billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe and his sister, Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe, had smuggled R22-million into Botswana and donated it to veteran politician Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi’s campaign, supposedly to influence succession politics ahead of the July elective conference of the governing Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
Months later, the Botswana high court interdicted and restrained the paper from publishing “false and/or defamatory allegations” about Motsepe.
In the run-up to the election, some private media houses lined up to cheer President Mokgweetsi Masisi. They presented him as a victim of a smear campaign by the opposition, particularly former president Ian Khama, who had left the ruling party to form his own political grouping. Others took pleasure in defending Umbrella for Democratic Change leader, Duma Boko, without investigating his suspiciously large campaign resources.
Meanwhile, journalists and broadcasters who try to remain neutral have become objects of scrutiny and derision.
In Botswana, the rot set in years ago, when it seemed acceptable in many private newsrooms to slant coverage to reflect the views of opposition parties, even if the rulebook outlawed bias. This mindset was rooted in the legitimate need to counter the state media’s flagrant bias and prescriptive coverage of government policies and the BDP, but it had the effect of undermining trust in media more generally.
Those journalists and publications that tried to maintain their critical distance from power paid dearly when Khama introduced a surreptitious ban on government advertising in most newspapers in 2014, which undermined their financial health and led to job losses. For one newspaper, the daily Mmegi, this resulted in losing nearly a quarter of its staff between 2013 and 2016.
Another threat to traditional journalism is the blurring of boundaries between journalists and social media influencers. In Botswana’s 2019 general election, several former journalists traded on their journalistic credibility to whip up support for one candidate or the other.
How to restore credibility
One way to restore credibility in the media is for newsrooms to adopt higher standards: we need to implement clearly defined processes for verifying data and investigating allegations that cannot be bypassed.
This is expensive, however, and private media — in an age of ever-declining circulation — will always have some degree of vulnerability to those who control the purse strings. This is exacerbated in Botswana by the lack of advertising. Funding issues leave private media houses highly vulnerable, and have created a pervasive culture of self-censorship.
In 2013, Mmegi apologised to Choppies — the country’s largest supermarket chain, and a major advertiser — after its investigative journalist Lawrence Seretse wrote a well-researched investigation into the supermarket chain’s mislabelling of expired and damaged food. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, in 2016 the newspaper refused to run a story about Choppies after one of its reporters wrote a follow-up about how the company continued to sell expired, damaged and weevil-infested food.
The industry’s lack of an effective self-governing mechanism — such as South Africa’s Press Council — means there are no consequences for unprofessional behaviour. Both the Press Council of Botswana and the Botswana Editors Forum exist only in name, and the journalism union has not had elections in years. The Botswana chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, of which I am a board member, has not had an election in more than 12 months.
In 2020 we must restore the integrity of our profession. To do that we must return to the basics. In particular, we must develop the patience to verify, confirm, and fact-check information — particularly leaked information — before we publish. We should avoid single-source stories. We should remember that scepticism is healthy. Only when journalists have restored trust in ourselves can we expect the broader public to trust us again.
Joel Konopo is the co-founder of the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism. He is a former Botswana Guardian editor and a board member of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. This is an edited extract from his essay, Journalism Needs to Rethink Ethics, first published by INK.