Botswana is generally considered a flourishing democracy with free and fair elections, a growing economy, and a good human rights record. Though there have been a few rough patches for governance since the constitution was formed in 1966, in recent years, the government has been praised for respecting civil liberties, including press freedom.
Media in Botswana has thrived during these years, and journalists have grown accustomed to having their independence, which could be the reason they were irate about the introduction of the Media Practitioners Bill in late June. Reporters across the country, along with international press advocacy organizations, continue to voice disapproval of the proposed law that would give the government more control of the media.
The bill seeks to set up a statutory press council that monitors activities of the media and “ensures the maintenance of high professional standards.” It would also require journalists to register with the council to be accredited and face hefty fines for noncompliance.
Opponents of the Media Practitioners Bill compare it to the controversial Zimbabwean Access to Information and Protection Act, the repressive piece of legislation that contributed to quieting a once thriving media in Zimbabwe. Click here to read one Zimbabwean's comparison of press freedom in his native country with that of Botswana.
Newspapers around the country have published editorials condemning the legislation throughout the month of July. One of the most persistent arguments against the bill is that there is currently a vigor and optimism in the air about the future of Botswana - why put a damper on that by making people question the future of a key institution of their democracy?
“We are disappointed that this bill seeks to increase, rather than decrease, governmental involvement in the regulation of the media, particularly because it follows lengthy deliberations and input from the media, which appears to have been ignored,” stated IPI Director David Dadge.
Despite the overall disapproval of the legislation from media personnel, there are some well-intentioned parts of the bill. For example, it hopes to set up an accreditation process to make journalism stronger and more professional. The intention is good; however, many observers are questioning whether legislation is the appropriate means to this end.
Independent Southern African journalists and the international press advocacy community argue that government should focus on strengthening journalism by educating and training reporters, not by controlling them. Most journalists in Botswana, and indeed throughout Africa, haven’t had the opportunity to get formal training in journalistic ethics practices. As a result, most independent press concentrates on criticism. It is vital for journalists anywhere to carry out this watchdog role toward the government and other institutions of power, and both investigative reporting and critical editorial analysis play an essential role in promoting transparency and accountable governance. However, African publics, like those anywhere, deserve the opportunity to digest balanced, neutral news stories on political, social and economic issues that neither hue to the government line nor to that of the political opposition. More accessible professional training for African journalists would facilitate the development of such a nuanced discourse, and expand both the credibility and capacity of reporters across the region.
If the Media Practitioners Bill passes, it could be a huge step back for journalism - and democracy - in Botswana. Rather than expanding state control of media, government officials and newspaper editors need to invest in professional training for independent journalists.