Freedom of expression has come to the fore of debate nowadays more than it has ever appeared in our history as a nation. We are not surprised at the developments surrounding this inalienable freedom for obvious reasons.
One among many facts is clear. Botswana of 2014 boasts 20 mainstream media outfits. For a population estimated at two million, the ratio translates to 100, 000 people per media outfit, essentially. This scenario presents both an opportunity and risk where freedom of expression is mentioned. There are 13 newspapers, two television channels and five radio stations. The question should not be whether there is or no freedom of expression in Botswana; rather, what should freedom of expression be about in a democracy as ours is the question? Of course freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution should be about people’s opinions, beliefs, ideals, analyses, facts, reflections and so forth and should be exercised uninhibited. Freedom of expression should not be about outright insults, inciting public indecency, provoking violence or instigating hatred against others on the basis of ethnicity, sexual orientation, creed, political persuasion or religious heritage. As a plural democracy, one such hefty price that nations in this mould inevitably pay is unequivocal embrace of the freedom of expression by citizens and individuals.
God-fearing ministers can boldly declare their intolerance and apparent hatred for homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered humans, yet preach ‘Jesus is love’ whom the Bible consistently depicts as having embraced immoral beings. What about politicians who publicly state that criminals deserve cruel deaths at the hands of security agents without a day in court, or worse still, citizens who make known their hatred for Zimbabweans to ruthlessly obliterate them with gunshots because they demanded a wage for their hard labour? These are clear examples of where freedom of expression is abused. These days, reading newspapers, listening to the radios or watching television; one realizes just how far off we have come to understand the freedom of expression in the things we say or do to others.
The truth is that all of us resent freedoms of others when their beliefs or opinions clash with ours. I remind myself whenever I listen to the phone-in shows in the morning, when the notorious voices call in and their viewpoint on any subject is a foregone guess by regular listeners. But no matter how much these callers are annoying to wear the same lens in gazing upon life in general, they are simply expressing their freedoms in an open Republic. It thus serves no purpose to show anger and intolerance of other people’s dissenting viewpoints.
In short, life will be utter boredom if everyone praised and glorified certain things and people without question or some degree of cynicism. But should our expressions necessitate enmity, or in some cases hatred to the extent that nowadays it is common to hear Batswana fearing that our nation is falling apart at the centre? Recently, the brief statement from the American Government to Botswana Government on the detention of Sunday Standard Editor Outsa Mokone made me realize how close a friend we have so much that America cared to remind Botswana of her moral high pedestal from where she probably is slipping into the darkness that defines African nations. But what came from the Government enclave was vitriolic and completely misplaced. In the exercise of our freedom of expression as a sovereign Government, we overreacted. When governments speak to one another, they are encapsulating the nation’s aspirations and beliefs.
We are likely divided on the appropriateness or lack thereof of the Government’s response, and that is to be expected; but in our freedoms of expression, we should never lose sight that we are Batswana. Weeks ago, the Btv entertainment show beamed one of our local artists with a hit ‘Ke kenta basadi fela’ and my family like many others during prime time-viewing was watching. I imagined the impact of the lyrics and sexual gestures on impressionable minds who are the primary target of the show. Not long after that, the national broadcaster played another hit titled ‘Leso la Monnamogolo le mpereketse’ and as I listened attentively, there was no ambiguity as to the glamorization of sex and promotion of sexual immorality. Both songs are about sexual intercourse and nothing about healthy relationships between men and women. They are about exploitation of the female species by the masculine males, who are edified by the many sexual escapades, whether such intimacies demean those they are in contact with is not relevant, much less important.
These two songs are examples of freedom of expression gone haywire because they depict a society that is misogynist and sexist in as far as relationships between men and women are concerned. It is thus disappointing that our broadcasters and even regulators in BOCRA do not seem to pick on such creativity to steer our composers to focus on nation-building themes. No parent wants to raise a boy-child who shall for lack of a better word, turn into a womaniser or player. Both songs run contrary to our moral ethos and botho as we know them to be fundamental pillars of this great nation. How can the death of a grandfather benefit a grandson who inherits the widow and indeed his own grandmother for sexual pleasures? It is an abomination of the worst order in our Setswana culture as this is an act of incest and violation of observance of seniority, where boys know their age limits where intercourse is concerned.
But the artist might have an argument that his composition is in fact a rendition of life in the fast-decaying moral fibre of Botswana. Haven’t we seen cases of incest in this form brought before our courts? Any person must and can exercise the freedom of expression, so long that freedom does not infringe upon others’ freedoms to express their opinions, beliefs, ideals and facts. Since we are in an election year toward the D-day, politicians’ statements are often times classic examples of how freedom of expression is put to the litmus test. Any politician who is unable to tackle the real issues of service delivery and how he can improve the lives of his voters usually finds character assassination the only weapon. Such a man or woman cannot be prevented from speaking his mind regarding the opponent, but in so doing, such a politician must make sure that whatever he says of another person is relevant, factual, fair and truthful comment. But cheap politicking across parties is what we are treated to on a daily basis and some make comments you can never figure out what fuelled them in the first place.
For example, political opponents in one constituency during radio debate disagreed on who between them as past members of Parliament can be credited for the landmark infrastructure in their area, which is the pride of the voters. One in a desperate move to score points told his opponent that he advocated for the particular development because the construction of the landmark was during a moment when his opponent attempted suicide and was hospitalized following his loss. Picking on such a painful and personal moment in someone’s life might smack of insincerity on the other party, but politicians seize every moment to score mileage, and skeletons concealed in closets come out rattling during an election year! The onus is on the one being attacked to clear his name by stating facts to defeat the disparaging remarks, or bring into focus what the attacker has done or said in the past to denounce him in similar fashion. Clearly from this case, the freedom of expression might have been overstretched to vilify another person, but the nicety about democracy is that the attacker cannot remain immune from similar disparaging remarks. It is thus morally expected to freely express one’s opinion about others because others can freely express their impressions about you.
The news article that led to the flight of Edgar Tsimane was in fact projecting President Ian Khama as a fugitive from [the] law after being reported to have had an automobile accident. Should the President not be the torchbearer when it comes to upholding the laws of the Republic? The President is the embodiment of Democracy and all values underpinning democracy, the respect of law being prominent. Should the newspaper have exercised restraint in publishing such an article with high risk of a backlash, if its truthfulness was to be doubted? Yes. But we hear from the editors that they ran the checklist of a factual story before publishing it. Like anybody who must fight to have his dignity and reputation intact, the President must not be restricted from approaching the courts to prove his innocence and seek redress in a defamation suit. But then there is a problem, we are cautioned; Khama cannot take off a layer of his office and present himself as an ordinary citizen 365 days in a given year, therefore, approaching the courts is tantamount to opening a Pandora’s box in that he shall be cross-examined like any witness! If he is immune from civil prosecution, it suffices he may not sue because he does not enjoy a personal capacity like the rest of us. So, bad things can be said about him and he cannot have a recourse? Presidency costs too dearly!
On the other hand, the matter does not need to reach the courts if the publishers were to satisfy areas that can point clearly in the direction that the article was well researched with ample evidence and proof that can be shared with the public without coercion from any quarters, for example a picture of the other vehicle involved in the accident, since our President [is alleged to have] fled immediately! I think such evidence would in fact have been the most appropriate to be splashed on the front page because it would support the story in terms of the exact location of the accident, and the owner of the vehicle would have to prove that it was not the President’s car that he hit. I think in as far as proof is concerned, the President’s office must be commended for sharing with the nation their version, where one of the fleet used by His Excellency was involved in an accident, but in Dibete, some 100 kilometres away from the capital. In journalism, it is not enviable practice to disclose news sources if they volunteered information on anonymity basis, hence the hotel employee from whom the story is alleged to have originated should not be revealed under any circumstances because of the confidentiality clause.
In exercising our freedoms of expression, therefore; creative writers, journalists, performing artists, composers and politicians must observe moral ethos over and above our professional codes of conduct to remind ourselves of the need for restraint, where in doubt of information in our possession to pass for facts. As it has been said countless times; freedoms and civil liberties do not exist in a vacuum; those in the enjoyment of such freedoms must make sure they reciprocate with high degree of responsibility, otherwise we are recycling an heirloom that is too much for us to handle in the now and future. Where we have been reckless, we must not cry foul but dance to the music, especially if we cannot humble ourselves to beg for pardon and mercy from those we have violated. After all; to err is human, to forgive is divine!
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org