Attacks on the Press 2002: Botswana

Though journalists and human rights observers generally consider the independent press in Botswana free, the government proved in 2002 that it is unwilling to tolerate negative coverage from state media.

In mid-April, Minister of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration Daniel Kwelagobe berated reporters from the state-owned Botswana Television network (BTV) for insulting President Festus Mogae by broadcasting comments from Neo Mothlabane, leader of the opposition Botswana People’s Party. Kwelagobe, who is also secretary-general of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, warned the broadcaster to sanitize its reports. The minister’s comments disturbed local journalists, who felt that such statements created a climate of government intimidation during a vital period of national debate about proposed constitutional amendments designed to protect the rights of minority tribes.

Kwelagobe also accused the private press of “sensationalism and lack of in-depth reporting on the ongoing tribal debate.” According to the independent weekly Mmegi, Kwelagobe claimed that the state media act as “a tool for nation building,” while the private media are “driven by business motives.” Despite these criticisms, the government did not take any serious action against the private press in 2002.

Nevertheless, journalists for the state media experienced increased government pressure. On April 22, the popular Radio Botswana talk show “Live Line,” which was to feature a discussion on the scope of news coverage by public-service media outlets, was canceled shortly before airtime. At around the same time, BTV general manager Oshinka Tsiang, who is known for his strong support of editorial independence, resigned because of government interference, according to local journalists. Despite government pledges not to meddle in BTV operations, Tsiang was the second BTV manager to quit within a year because of state interference, said local sources.

The political opposition also attacked the Botswanan press. During a rally in May, Botswana National Front politician David Mhiemang physically assaulted Mmegi news editor Stryker Motlaloso in reprisal for the paper’s coverage of factionalism within the party.

However, there were some positive developments for the media in 2002. In September, jurisdiction over media issues–including media-government relations–was moved from Kwelagobe’s Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration to the newly created Ministry of Communications, Science, and Technology. Journalists in Botswana were hopeful that the new ministry would be friendlier toward the press.

In late October, journalists and media-rights advocates established a press council to regulate the Botswanan media. The council will receive petitions from the public about the performance of members of the press and will be empowered to “adjudicate on such matters and apply appropriate remedies, including sanctions, where necessary, in order to promote an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect between the press and the public.” This self-regulatory body is the Botswanan media’s response to the government’s Mass Media Communications Bill, which would establish a statutory press council with leaders appointed by the government. Local journalists have heavily criticized the bill, saying it is an attempt to muzzle the press and control editorial policy.

The government’s resettlement of the San people in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve drew the attention of the international media in 2002. Authorities denied some journalists access to the San during the last stages of the resettlement, which many observers saw as a forced removal, and harassed reporters who were able to communicate with them.

April 19

Stryker Motlaloso, Mmegi

Motlaloso, news editor for the independent weekly Mmegi, was assaulted by opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) politician David Mhiemang at a political rally in the capital, Gaborone.

According to sources at Mmegi, Mhiemang approached Motlaloso, who was covering the rally for the paper, and accused him of reporting negatively on BNF party activities. Mhiemang then punched Motlaloso in the eye and began insulting him. When Mhiemang drew a knife and threatened to stab the journalist, Motlaloso left.

Mmegi sources told CPJ that the paper’s coverage of infighting among BNF factions, which many say hampers the party’s ability to function effectively, had angered Mhiemang. On April 20, Motlaloso pressed assault charges against Mhiemang. By year’s end, no progress had been made in the case.