Freedom of speech is a precious right, currently under pressure in Botswana because of the ill-considered Media Practitioners' Act.  In a detailed historical description in Mmegi, Rampholo Molefhe outlines the long road the private media have travelled in that country, and argues that trade unions have a crucial role to play in opening up the terrain for media freedom.

Rampholo Molefhe writes in Mmegi:

"My dear friends." That is the fraternal greeting of trade union of journalists of Great Britain. They boast a tradition of trade unionism of 109 years, which goes back to 1900.

Their experience includes reporting on the Great Depression of 1930, the two imperialist world wars of the latter part of the 20th Century, the peace movement targeted primarily at the Vietnam War, and the process of decolonisation of Africa starting soon after World War II and the Bandung Conference.

That experience is reflected in the formulation of what the French journalists refer to as Principles of Professional Ethics and Practice, seeking to avoid the earlier 'Codes of Conduct', which are more in line with the practice of the state bureaucracies and armies which swear to secrecy and protection of the conspiratorial shenanigans of dictators, fascists, racists and colonialists who were responsible for the global calamities of the 1900s.

The results are manifest in the current 'financial crisis' in the era of globalised capitalism in the 21st century (to be discussed in a supplementary article). The label 'code' then dictates blind obedience to predetermined rules and regulations, cast in stone, which require members to follow without asking, and to do without questioning. That is the style of work of the Mafia, the CIA, FBI, MI5, the Broederbond, the Gestapo and the Directorate on Intelligence and Security. That manner of work is directly opposed to journalism and democracy, which require openness, fairness, participation and accountability.When the Soviet Union sold out on socialism in 1990 under the successive regimes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the journalists of the satellite states of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland and others raised fundamental questions about the ethical conduct of 'brothers' in the profession who, they expected, should have questioned the orders they were given, resulting in the imprisonment, torture and cruel treatment of press workers there.

Indeed, one of the principles of professional conduct of the International Federation of Journalists, which organisation also has its own unsavoury historical connections with the CIA, calls for the protection of 'friends' before any other person; a lesson painfully learnt from the conduct of wars that enslaved journalists, making them tools of the propaganda machines of dictators and warmongers.Journalism, since the years of communication by way of the drum, or messages delivered on horseback, and well before publication of the biblical account of how the world was created, has developed a sound and scientific method by which news is communicated truthfully, factually, and regularly, in pursuit of the fulfilment of the unequivocal right of the public to know.The French Revolution of the mid-1800s formally located the press at the very centre of the democratic process, giving it the title of 'The Fourth Estate'. To this day, a vigorous and well-oiled press is counted as a prerequisite, alongside an independent judiciary, regular free and fair elections, economic livelihood of the citizens, tolerance of minority rights and gender equality, freedom from corruption and an open and accountable system of governance, for the establishment and nurturing of the democratic process.

In the so-called civilised countries, the press derives its status at the centre of the democratic practice from constitutional guarantees to citizens of the right to freedom of expression, the institutional right of freedom of information and the press and the individual right to his or her opinion or belief system. This is not so in Botswana.

The rulers cling hard to legal and military protection of the state and the economic interests of a small minority of the propertied and pretenders to property, with the tenacity of prehistoric man. The crafters of the constitution of Botswana claim that freedom of the press is implicit in the guarantee of 'freedom of expression' and the right of citizens to hold 'opinions' of their liking. Yes, implicit! But not explicitly guaranteed in the manner in which the 'Eight Major Tribes' are guaranteed space in the government of the country, even causing the President to order Commissions of Inquiry – a power granted to him by the constitution – to investigate refurbishment Sections 77, 78 and 79 which institutionalise tribal superiority of the Se-Tswana speaking groups.

Needless to say, what little survives of the constitutional guarantee of press freedom is obliterated by counter-legislation, including the Official Secrets Act which gave way to the National Security Act of 1986, the Penal Code, laws establishing the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime, the National Intelligence and Security Act, the Public Health Act, the Police Act, the BDF Act, the Public Service Act together with its Code of Conduct, and the constitutional provisions that permit the President and the Minister of Home Affairs to declare, without recourse to a court of law, residents of Botswana 'disaffected persons' or 'illegal immigrants'.

The latest paragon of the state's shenanigans is the passing of the Media Practitioners Act. All of these serve to bolster government policy under the ruling Botswana Democratic Party that has, since independence in 1966, by deliberate omission, deprived citizens and other investors, of the right to broadcast, claiming that the Ministry of Works and Communications was not legally empowered to entertain applications for the establishment of radio and television stations. It took the milestone 'Gunda decision' of the High Court to establish that indeed, Colin Blackbeard's communications ministry had, at independence, been empowered – by statute – to do exactly that.

There was much gnashing of teeth on Government Enclave when, under the nose of the government, William Jones searched for the Posts and Telecommunications Act that permitted, for a handsome fee, about P400 then, the establishment the first financially viable private newspaper, The Botswana Guardian, in 1983. In civilised countries, restrictions on the establishment of newspapers and broadcasters are kept to the absolute minimum, only seeking to protect the public against intrusion upon the rights of citizens, such as the right to be free from pornography, protection of children and prevention from the abuse of the right of citizens to privacy.

This landmark development – the Gunda decision – led to the weekly reporting of High Court proceedings in which Minister Daniel Kwelagobe, and the then governor of the Bank of Botswana, Festus Mogae, were cited by Chelsea Morrison and Idah Ngope of the 'Mosadi' magazine fame, in a case of unfair dismissal, titivated with other tickling tales better left untold! The public followed the Gofhamodimo murder case with great interest, with the spill-over effect of raising the question of the death penalty, causing President Ketumile Masire to contemplate the legal provision of the presidential pardon, long after 'Koos' was hanged for the murder of Sir Russell England in the early 1960s.

The Guardian, and this reporter, in 1985, published the first expose of corruption at the Botswana Housing Corporation under the watch of Minister of Local Government, Chapson Butale, who saw six of his board members jump ship, sending the CEO, (J) Richardson on forced sick leave back to London, also causing accountant, David Mokokong, to depart.

The Guardian, called for a commission of enquiry, compelling President Masire to yield, for the first time to private press demands for the official investigation by David Finlay and Jerry Gabaake, who routinely dismissed the serious allegation of maladministration at the BHC as 'administrative errors'.

The private press had established itself as a true watchdog that would guard against official corruption and abuse of office, till then, unheard of. (It will be noted that Epena Nyantangue, then based at the Gantsi BOPA office, also attempted an expose of racism at the lodges there, for which he and the Daily News were successfully sued, setting a precedent for future cases in which the civil service elite would use taxpayers' money to defend themselves against legitimate probing of abuse of office and maladministration).

The Gunda decision caused the swift establishment of the Botswana Telecommunications Authority based at the Ministry of Communications, to serve as the gatekeeper for access to the airwaves, although the Department of Information and Broadcasting had enjoyed monopoly of that privilege as a routine administrative function, even establishing commercial radio at RB II and advertising at Kutlwano and the Daily News! In order to pre-empt open-ended probing of the civil service and captains of the private sector, the government promptly employed the Ghanaian's 'professor' (Kwesi) Ansah, to frame a communications law to arrest the freedoms of the newly-registered newspapers and broadcasters in the mid-1980s.This Ansah did surreptitiously with the connivance of the senior information officers at the Department of Information and Broadcasting, and without consultation with the Botswana Journalists Association.
The message was clear, Government had now embarked on a deliberate programme to transform the unwritten policy of the ruling party, reflected in the pervasive attitude of top ranking officers in the 'civil service', into statutory instruments with institutional support, to forestall effective social dialogue and free marketing of ideas, particularly those that did not harmonise with the ruling party government under Seretse, had already started to practice by banning the literature of the liberation movements, including Setshaba and The African Communist.The new laws would only continue the already embedded aversion for freedom of expression by attempting to shift responsibility away from the political leadership to institutions that would give the appearance of holding a professional mandate.

The banishment of eight journalists, among them John Mukela, Gwen Ansell and Mxolisi Mxgashe, by Presidential Decree and by order of the home affairs minister, then Englishman Kgabo, had caused Botswana 'shining democracy' enough damage abroad, especially at a time when press freedom had become a topical subject among the donor agencies and the bourgeoning democracies of southern Africa. Then Presidential Affairs ministers, Daniel Kwelagobe and Ponatshego Kedikilwe, attended United Nations conferences in New York and Harare in the mid-1980s where they discussed the 'International Information Highway' and resolutions that condemned unfavourable reporting on African affairs, later culminating in the establishment of the ailing Pan-African News Agency or PANA.

Botswana strengthened BOPA, and communicated the government's view of events to the OAU and UN member countries. Clandestinely, the government planted its own gendarmes at the press club, inside BOJA, and at the ministerial consultative organs that the journalists had requested following the 'Freedom of the Press' workshop jointly organised by the Friederich Ebert Foundation and BOJA in 1990. That workshop, with representatives from the East African Journalists' Union in the name of James Namakajo, and South Africa's Mathatha Tsedu, resolved, among other factors, to seek:

. Lifting of the ten year secrecy cover on official documents (stored at the government archives of the Ministry of Home Affairs)

. Establishment of a consultative forum with the President and Minister of Information

. Enactment of a Freedom of Information law

. Constitutional recognition of press freedom

.Investigation of the prospects of unionisation

Everybody but the journalists was aware of the size and depth of resolve of the government to put out the flame of press freedom. The BOJA strategy of resistance by non-participation and silent refusal to acquiesce to government imposition of forced regulation was reactive rather than proactive, defensive rather than aggressive, spontaneous rather than deliberate and conscious, and it focused on the immediate battles rather than the larger long-term war.Competition for donor resources between BOJA and the nascent 'advocacy' groups, led by non-journalists and publishers, contributed greatly to the fragmentation of the front against abuse of the press. BOJA had also failed to persuade the donor community about the urgent need for institutionalisation of its work.

The attention of the donors shifted to the publishers, newspaper managers and the state press, which already had an established administrative network. The government spies entered the cracks between the journalists, advertising staff, newspaper distributors, newspaper boys and girls, drivers and sweepers on the one hand, and the editors, publishers, senior civil servants, parliamentarians and chiefs on the other, acting as spokespersons of 'the media'.The centrality of journalists and journalism was sacrificed to the amoeboid definition of 'media', which included everything and anything but the journalists, including lawyers, accountants, teachers, poets, fashion designers, public relations officers, the CIA, the police and prostitutes. Claiming 'advocacy', the intruders 'negotiated' Ansah's proposed communications bill, including the Broadcasting Act, the establishment of a press council, and finally, the demise of self-regulation while also promoting government cooption.Government had made no 'offer' to be negotiated. They had decided a ready-made communications and broadcasting bill. Government needed no advocacy because the Department of Information and Broadcasting employs 'information officers', not journalists. Their job was well publicised. The information officers – Kebatlamang Morake and several others after him, are employed as civil servants to promote government programmes in accordance with the rules and regulations, codes of conduct, and other contractual obligations that govern the work of the government bureaucracy. Period.The government spies then, redefined 'self-regulation' to mean the domestication of the private press and its journalists by the Minister of Presidential Affairs, later the Minister of Communications, Science and Technology.Needless to say, the spies and the professional careerists were the first to knock at Minister Boyce Sebetlela's office, deriding BOJA efforts to seek a national plebiscite of the press which would discuss: –

.Transformation of the state press into government media

. Institution of a Freedom of Press law

.Setting in motion the establishment of the Journalist and Allied Workers Union which would also speak for the state employees

.Strengthening of consultative processes between the leaders of the journalists' community with the President and the relevant ministers.In effect, they had negotiated themselves into outright cooption, believing that they had beaten BOJA to the ball. Ao shame! At the negotiating table, the spies and intruders who represented 'the media' were outnumbered by the information officers, and by deliberate design, this happened in the absence of the minister who was then absolved from taking political responsibility for whatever decision were made at these talk shops.The overzealous 'negotiators' were then manoeuvred into acquiescence in their own demise, which the whole world now seeks to blame on the minister, who could do nothing but take full advantage of the glaring absence of journalism in what the advocates were negotiating.Principle Number One:

The right of the trade union to determine who shall be a member of the fraternity is not negotiable, certainly not with the minister; policemen decide who policemen shall be.

Doctors create and certify doctors, as do prostitutes; the trade union of journalists, as a matter of principle, determines who shall become a journalist.

Principle Number Two: Self-regulation is not the same thing as ministerial control. Self-regulation means that journalists shall seek community leaders, professionals in the legal and academic professions, journalists of repute and representatives of Government where relevant, to offer the public a system and structures by which citizens shall be guaranteed the right to fair treatment in the media. The minister retains only the right to facilitate by using taxpayers' money in that process without undue waste or detraction from the right of the public to balanced, fair, truthful and factual information.

This undertaking is best done when the minister is most scarce, only to be reported to.

Principle Number Three: The farther the government is from the press, the better for democracy. Reference was earlier made to the presence and proper functioning of a 'free and independent press' as a primary indicator in the creation and functioning of democracy. 'Free' generally refers to freedom from political influence. 'Independent' refers to freedom from influence of rich and powerful people in government, in the private sector and in the larger society.

History has fashioned Botswana's democracy so that government was compelled, particularly in the early years of independence, to play a central role in the determination of the shape and execution of the national democratic process. On that account, the government has grown accustomed to a monopoly of ownership of the press, in much the same way as the ruling party revels in ownership and control of Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive arms of government. It will not let go without a fight, despite and in spite of the Kgotla claims of obedience to democratic ideals.

The Ghana conference of African journalists in the early 1960s and subsequent developments at the United Nations and the African Union made good attempts at locating the citizen's right to information, and journal at the centre of the development agenda. Contrary to the ideas enunciated in the Declaration of Human Rights at the UN and the AU, government continues to hanker on to the state press, deceiving the illiterate citizenry into believing that everything and anything that is owned by government is in good hands, even if it goes against the right of the people to good information. The tribesmen, knowing nothing about modern journalism, are forced to accept the notion that the state media represents the same thing as the public media, in the same manner as 'government information officer' means the same thing as 'journalist'!

The modern definition of 'public' accepts that the media cannot be left to the whims of the profit motive and private enterprise whilst at the same time accepting that the private interest will mitigate against the propensity of the politicians to propagate for their own dominance at the expense of the public interest. In other words, public ownership of the media seeks to balance out the obligation of the politicians to safeguard the right of the public to good information against the interest of private people, invariably persuaded by profit, who seek efficiency and professionalism in the execution of news delivery.
The government has adopted the apartheid tricks of declaring Radio Botswana, Btv, the Daily News and BOPA 'public enterprises' simply by passing a law in an ignorant parliament that says so. Everything else remains the same. There is no provision for independent public representation on the board(s) of these massive propaganda organisations. There is even less provision for parliamentary and professional oversight. The state media is expensive, both financially and in terms of the cost to democracy. Selective privatisation, transformation towards a genuine 'public media' and creation of space for community-based media will help the establishment of a free and independent press.

Fresh strategies will be required to level the terrain for the cultivation of a press-friendly environment to release democracy from the stranglehold of politicians who will be satisfied with nothing less than the strangulation of the private press and continued dominance of the information industry by the state media.

Firstly, there has to be repositioning of journalism and journalists at the very centre of the development agenda. That will require, first and foremost, the firm transformation of the ideals of the Botswana Journalists Association into a programme of the Botswana Journalists and Allied Workers Union.

In so doing, the journalists must, at every turn, share notes with the editors and the publishers who hold a direct stake in the survival of the media industry. Nothing will become of these efforts without agitation for solidarity at the trade unions, particularly those that are involved in information technology, posts and telecommunications, printing and publishing, advertising and distribution.

The legal route will assist when there is money. The trade union route will always work where there is professional conviction.

* This column first appeared in Mmegi on 20 March 2009.