The new code of conduct developed by Botswana's National Broadcasting Board is highly problematical, writes Mmegi in an editorial. Among other things, it is much too restrictive about the conduct of debates during elections.

Mmegi writes in an editorial:

The National Broadcasting Board (NBB) has been meeting with broadcasters to drill them on the basics of elections coverage. This all sounds fine until one sees the code of conduct on elections coverage to which broadcasters are supposed to adhere to.

We understand that this code was developed with the input of players in the broadcasting industry. This should be laudable. However in its current form, one wonders how the code is supposed to help broadcasters to inculcate proper debate in the build-up to elections.

It is always imprudent when a body such as the NBB attempts to stipulate how journalists should do their work. Facilitating debate is the primary job of journalists.

Journalists have their own ethos and ethics to guide them in their work. A direct stipulation through specific orders by a body that is not able to understand the practice of journalism does not help. It does not matter that broadcasting is a different way of carrying news through to the audience. It is still journalism. We think it is out of order for the NBB to stipulate exactly how debate should be conducted. The NBB is overreaching itself when it prescribes dates within which debates should be conducted and the mode the debates should take.

The NBB stipulates that no debate involving candidates should be conducted until the writ of elections is released. This is tantamount to stifling debate and it would be impossible to see how this helps to make elections free and fair. Elections are much more than issue a writ and casting the ballot. Elections are about vibrant debate, which in some jurisdictions precedes the actual elections by a year or more. Nowhere in the world is a moratorium on electoral debate is enforced while waiting for some bureaucratic ritual to take place. It is only in Botswana that a body such as the NBB can muzzle debate four weeks away from the actual voting. Even worse is the prospect of the writ being released a month or a week before elections. Would the NBB expect broadcasters to hold on until a week before elections? What gain does the nation accrue from this stipulation by the NBB? The NBB should ask itself serious questions.

NBB head Dr Masego Mpotokwane, reportedly argued that Botswana is not ready for political TV adverts yet? What criteria does he use to decide this? Has the NBB conducted any survey to gauge this readiness or lack of? How is it that Batswana are ready for other forms of political advertising such as posters and t-shirts but not TV? What does the nation gain out of this ban on electronic advertising? As broadcast media gets a more central role in our society, it will help the NBB to reconsider some aspects of the code, lest it is accused of hindering the conduct of proper, free and fair elections.