Attacks on the Press 2001: Botswana

Botswana is generally considered a model of peace and stability in southern Africa, and its press, though relatively small, is vibrant and outspoken. Relations between the government and the press were strained this past year, however, as officials tried to influence editorial policy and cooperated less with independent journalists.

In early May, all government offices were ordered to stop advertising in two independent weeklies–The Guardian and The Midweek Sun–following the publication of articles that accused Vice President Ian Khama of abusing his authority.

The government is the largest advertiser in local publications. Fearing the loss of vital revenues from the state and from private companies that follow its lead, the papers’ editors filed suit against the government. In late September, in what was celebrated as a victory for press freedom throughout southern Africa, a High Court judge ruled the advertising ban unconstitutional, arguing that by applying unfair financial pressure on The Guardian and The Midweek Sun, the authorities were violating their right to freedom of expression.

In late November, the government presented a draft Mass Media Communications Bill to a group of journalists and media professionals. The proposed legislation is almost identical to a 1997 bill that was later shelved under pressure from local press organizations. It seeks to establish a press council whose principal appointments would be made by the government. Botswanan journalists say that such official control would pose a threat to journalists who criticize the government.

The media bill gives police the right to seize publications that violate its provisions, which include the requirement that all journalists obtain government accreditation before reporting in Botswana. The bill was still pending at year’s end.

Officials frequently lambasted the independent press last year, accusing it of sensationalism and fuelling ethnic tensions. In October, a High Court judge brought a civil defamation suit against the private weekly Mmegi, seeking an unprecedented 5 million pula (US$853,000) in damages. Mmegi‘s editors feared the massive fine would bankrupt the paper, or land them in jail if they could not afford to pay it. In November, the judge ruled for the plaintiff but reduced the damages to 250,000 pula (US$42,650). At press time, Mmegi‘s editors were trying to negotiate a still lower settlement.

In late April, Chris Bishop, head of news and current affairs at the official Botswana Television (BTV), abruptly quit his post to protest alleged government interference in the station’s editorial policy and programming. Bishop, who claimed to have been repeatedly threatened by state officials, left the station after the authorities blocked the broadcast of a feature documentary on Marietta Bosch, a South African woman who was executed in early April after a Botswanan court convicted her of murder.