Freedom of the Press
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Botswana’s relatively diverse media landscape was marred in 2014 by government reprisals for reporting that was critical of President Seretse Khama Ian Khama. Access to information remained a challenge for journalists, and legal harassment of the Sunday Standard, a major newspaper, allegedly had a chilling effect on election coverage.
Although press freedom is not explicitly guaranteed in the constitution, clauses safeguarding freedoms of speech and expression undergird extensive legal protections for media outlets. The constitution contains a number of provisions concerning national security, public order, and public morality that can be used to limit press freedom.
In a highly unusual case, the sedition law was invoked against a journalist in September 2014. Editor Outsa Mokone of the Sunday Standard was arrested and charged with sedition after the paper published a story, written by Edgar Tsimane, claiming that President Khama had been involved in a road accident in his private vehicle. The Standard had also recently carried multiple articles on alleged corruption at the Directorate for Intelligence and Security (DIS). Tsimane, who received threats, fled to South Africa and secured temporary asylum. The sedition case remained pending at the end of the year.
Civil defamation suits by public officials and others remain a problem for journalists, though some prominent cases have recently been dropped or dismissed. In December 2013, President Khama had announced that individual government officials would be able to use state funds to launch defamation suits against the media. After vigorous objections by journalists in early 2014, the proposal was quietly but unofficially dropped. In April, a 12-year-old defamation suit against prominent media personality Methaetsile Leepile was dropped, and in June Khama dropped a defamation suit against the Sunday Standard.
Shortly afterward, however, Khama’s sister Jacqueline filed a complaint with the Media Complaints Committee, seeking to have two Sunday Standard journalists deregistered. In September, the Directorate on Economic Crime (DEC) took the Sunday Standard to court in an attempt to prevent it from reporting on a corruption case that involved allegations against the head of the DIS, Isaac Kgosi. Both Jacqueline Khama’s complaint and the DEC–Sunday Standard case were pending at year’s end.
Access to public information remains a major problem for journalists. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) rejected a freedom of information bill proposed by civil society groups and has reportedly drafted its own version in conjunction with a protection of information measure. However, neither bill was introduced in Parliament in 2014.
Parallel media regulatory regimes, one statutory and one self-regulatory, exist in Botswana. The 2008 Media Practitioners Act establishes a statutory media oversight body and requires the registration of all media workers and outlets. If the act were fully operational, the minister of communication would be able to exert significant influence over a new Media Council’s handling of complaints against outlets and journalists through control of key committees. Although passed by the legislature, the act has not entered into force due to legal challenges by media outlets, nongovernmental organizations, and trade unions. A final ruling on the law’s constitutionality was still pending at the end of 2014. Meanwhile, the Press Council of Botswana operates its own self-regulatory Media Complaints Committee.
The Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA) began operating in 2013. BOCRA and its founding act have been criticized for not allowing for the registration of community radio licenses.
The government came under increasing fire in 2014 for using state-owned media to issue rebuttals to claims presented in the private media. State-owned outlets have been accused of acting as mouthpieces for the government, without conducting even basic fact checks.
Relations between the private media and the government have worsened markedly during Khama’s tenure as president. As part of the September 2014 sedition case against the Sunday Standard, police raided its offices and confiscated computer equipment and files. More broadly, the use of the intelligence services to intimidate and spy on journalists and others is a growing concern. Fear of reprisals for coverage that is critical of the government has reportedly led to increased self-censorship in recent years.
Although the Media Institute of South Africa commended the balance and diversity of reporting on the parliamentary and local elections in October 2014, the organization identified certain transgressions. Reporting by government-funded public media outlets, for example, focused on the BDP and provided less coverage to smaller groups. Some observers have suggested that the legal harassment of the Sunday Standard had a chilling effect on journalists covering the election period.
Physical attacks on journalists are generally rare in Botswana, but a number of incidents were reported in 2014, including assaults by public employees on strike and in one case by a prison guard.
State-owned outlets dominate the broadcast media, which reach far more residents than the print media but provide inadequate access to the opposition and government critics. The private Gaborone Broadcasting Corporation television system and two private radio stations have limited reach, though Botswana easily receives broadcasts from neighboring South Africa.
Internet access is rare outside cities. An estimated 19 percent of the population used the medium in 2014. Penetration, though growing steadily, it is limited mostly by the high cost of connections and equipment.
A free and vigorous print sector thrives in cities and towns, with a range of independent newspapers and magazines published in the capital. The widest-circulation newspaper, the state-owned Daily News, is free to readers and is generally the only newspaper available in rural areas. There are currently 13 private newspapers, but they are mainly accessible in Gaborone. High printing costs and limited distribution networks mean that independent papers usually have modest pressruns.
The media rely heavily on advertising, and editorial accommodations are made for major buyers. In December 2014, the media in Botswana reported on a leaked government memorandum that allegedly prohibited all government departments and state-owned enterprises from advertising in a long list of private newspapers and one private radio station. Government officials reportedly denied knowledge of the memo.