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Advertising ban on private media is draconian!

Ndulamo Anthony Morima

That, as reported in several newspapers, government has confirmed its decision to ban advertising in some private media entities is regrettable. Clearly, as was alleged when the news first broke out, the decision is intended to starve the affected media houses of a significant source of income. Obviously, the plan is to force such media houses out of business, curtail their robust reporting due to limited resources or force them to change their editorial policies and be either sympathetic to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party(BDP) or be ‘neutral’.  

The claim by the Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP), Carter Morupisi, that the decision was necessitated by the need to minimize costs is not convincing. This is especially true considering that he initially denied that government had taken such a decision. If the decision were motivated by cost saving why have such other private media houses as The Voice, The Ngami Times, Duma FM and Yarona FM been spared of the ban? What criterion was used to designate them as ‘approved’ private media? Was the criteria used, if any, objective? Is advertising with them free or cheaper compared to the ‘non-approved’ private media’?

Can the allegation that these ‘approved’ media houses have been spared because they are sympathetic to the ruling BDP be dismissed as unfounded? What about the allegation that some of these ‘approved’ media houses are owned and/or co-owned by some influential members of the BDP? As regards Yarona FM, for example, is it not the very radio station that His Honor the Vice President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was, in the run up to the 2014 general elections, secretly recorded saying the BDP was in negotiations with it to participate in its Parliamentary Candidates debates and to sabotage those of Gabz FM?

Government’s decision to divide the private media into ‘approved’ and ‘non-approved’ is clearly a strategy to divide and rule the private media. The two divides are likely to view each other with suspicion, and are unlikely to support each other in issues that require a united voice by the private media. During this stand-off government may introduce anti freedom of expression laws and policies in anticipation of diminished and divided opposition from the private media.

The decision to divide the private media will inarguably have an adverse effect on the standard of journalism in the country. While the ‘approved’ private media are likely to abdicate their journalistic duties and ethics to appease the hand that feeds them, the ‘non-approved’ private media may, in an effort to punish the government and/or the BDP, do likewise and be unduly and overly critical of government. Also, whoever will fill the advertising void left by government with respect to the ‘non-approved’ private media may influence the standard of reporting in such advertiser’s favour.

Worse still, some ‘non-approved’ private media may, in an effort to regain favour with government, start self-censoring themselves. Self-censorship is the worst enemy to freedom of the press, and once it starts it is difficult to stop. If it is done by editors we are likely to witness an exodus of journalists who may, realizing that the freedom of expression they thought existed in the private media does not exist, leave the profession.  If it is done by journalists, with editors being complicit, those who violate Batswana’s rights and squander our people’s resources and heritage will have a field day as they will go unchecked.

Certainly, if government was truly motivated by the need to save costs it needed not to adopt such a drastic measure as a complete ban of advertising in some private media. Rather, it could have developed an Advertising Policy to guide government departments and parastatals on the amount of money that can be spent on advertising and the nature of adverts that can be placed in all media, not only private media.

Also, if cost saving were indeed a concern for government, government could have developed a comprehensive cost saving strategy which covers not only the private media, but also covers other expenditure areas. The national coffers, for example, continues bleeding because of exorbitant expenditure in procurement of luxury vehicles, holding of unproductive and politically motivated so-called ‘pitsos’, implementation of unsustainable and partisan or personality driven pet projects, e.t.c.

This decision by government no doubt tramples on freedom of expression. It is calculated to compel the private media, which because of our low population depends on government advertising to continue in business, to report with fear and favour. It seeks to compel the private media to report in support of the status quo which will only benefit the ruling BDP. It seeks to convert the private media into state media, thereby merely serving as a channel of communication that promotes government policies and programmes.

There is no doubt that it is decisions like these that negatively affect our country’s world rankings. No wonder with respect to the ‘Press Freedom Index’, Botswana, with the lowest being the perfect score, attained 22.9 and 15.5 in 2014 and 2009 respectively, suffering a decline of 7.4. A government that cares about its international standing, as ours professes to, cannot, immediately after suffering such a decline, introduce such an irrational anti-freedom of expression measure. A government that cares about achieving its own national Vision cannot, less than a year before the Vision 2016 timeframe ends, stoop so low as to kill its own watchdog.  

Instead of blaming the private media for its decline in popular support which manifested itself at the 2014 general elections, government and/or the BDP should introspect and toil to regain Batswana’s confidence. This it can do by returning to the path of respect for democracy and citizen liberties. Thinking that it can regain its support by keeping Batswana in the dark as a result of a weakened private media is a mistake that government and/or the BDP will live to regret. History has shown that no amount of subjugation or silencing can repel the winds of change.

The so-called ‘approved’ private media should be weary of the ‘gesture’ or ‘favour’ that government is extending to it. It will certainly come at a cost. The essence of journalism is that it should stand guard over a country’s democracy. This can only be achieved if journalists selfishly defend their independence which is their most valued asset. A true journalist should neither be a friend nor an enemy to anyone. He or she should never be approved by anyone. In fact, he or she should rather be disapproved, for very few people like being told the truth. A true journalist should only befriend one constant friend, independence. If he or she were to be unfaithful and have more than one friend that other friend should be truth.

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Is COVID-19 Flogging an Already Dead Economic Horse?

9th September 2020

The Central Bank has by way of its Monetary Policy Statement informed us that the Botswana economy is likely to contract by 8.9 percent over the course of the year 2020.

The IMF paints an even gloomier picture – a shrinkage of the order of 9.6 percent.  That translates to just under $2 billion hived off from the overall economic yield given our average GDP of roughly $18 billion a year. In Pula terms, this is about P23 billion less goods and services produced in the country and you and I have a good guess as to what such a sum can do in terms of job creation and sustainability, boosting tax revenue, succouring both recurrent and development expenditure, and on the whole keeping our teeny-weeny economy in relatively good nick.

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Union of Blue Bloods

9th September 2020

Joseph’s and Judah’s family lines conjoin to produce lineal seed

Just to recap, General Atiku, the Israelites were not headed for uncharted territory. The Promised Land teemed with Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These nations were not simply going to cut and run when they saw columns of battle-ready Israelites approach: they were going to fight to the death.

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Security Sector Private Bills: What are they about?

9th September 2020

Parliament has begun debates on three related Private Members Bills on the conditions of service of members of the Security Sector.

The Bills are Prisons (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Police (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and Botswana Defence Force (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The Bills seek to amend the three statutes so that officers are placed on full salaries when on interdictions or suspensions whilst facing disciplinary boards or courts of law.

In terms of the Public Service Act, 2008 which took effect in 2010, civil servants who are indicted are paid full salary and not a portion of their emolument. Section 35(3) of the Act specifically provides that “An employee’s salary shall not be withheld during the period of his or her suspension”.

However, when parliament reformed the public service law to allow civil servants to unionize, among other things, and extended the said protection of their salaries, the process was not completed. When the House conferred the benefit on civil servants, members of the disciplined forces were left out by not accordingly amending the laws regulating their employment.

The Bills stated above seeks to ask Parliament to also include members of the forces on the said benefit. It is unfair not to include soldiers or military officers, police officers and prison waders in the benefit. Paying an officer who is facing either external or internal charges full pay is in line with the notion of ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat or the presumption of innocence; that the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies.

The officers facing charges, either internal disciplinary or criminal charges before the courts, must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Paying them a portion of their salary is penalty and therefore arbitrary. Punishment by way of loss of income or anything should come as a result of a finding on the guilt by a competent court of law, tribunal or disciplinary board.

What was the rationale behind this reform in 2008 when the Public Service Act was adopted? First it was the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.

The presumption of innocence is the legal principle that one is considered “innocent until proven guilty”. In terms of the constitution and other laws of Botswana, the presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial, and it is an international human right under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11.

Withholding a civil servant’s salary because they are accused of an internal disciplinary offense or a criminal offense in the courts of law, was seen as punishment before a decision by a tribunal, disciplinary board or a court of law actually finds someone culpable. Parliament in its wisdom decided that no one deserves this premature punishment.

Secondly, it was considered that people’s lives got destroyed by withholding of financial benefits during internal or judicial trials. Protection of wages is very important for any worker. Workers commit their salaries, they pay mortgages, car loans, insurances, schools fees for children and other things. When public servants were experiencing salary cuts because of interdictions, they lost their homes, cars and their children’s future.

They plummeted into instant destitution. People lost their livelihoods. Families crumbled. What was disheartening was that in many cases, these workers are ultimately exonerated by the courts or disciplinary tribunals. When they are cleared, the harm suffered is usually irreparable. Even if one is reimbursed all their dues, it is difficult to almost impossible to get one’s life back to normal.

There is a reasoning that members of the security sector should be held to very high standards of discipline and moral compass. This is true. However, other more senior public servants such as judges, permanent secretary to the President and ministers have faced suspensions, interdictions and or criminal charges in the courts but were placed on full salaries.

The yardstick against which security sector officers are held cannot be higher than the aforementioned public officials. It just wouldn’t make sense. They are in charge of the security and operate in a very sensitive area, but cannot in anyway be held to higher standards that prosecutors, magistrates, judges, ministers and even senior officials such as permanent secretaries.

Moreover, jail guards, police officers and soldiers, have unique harsh punishments which deter many of them from committing misdemeanors and serious crimes. So, the argument that if the suspension or interdiction with full pay is introduced it would open floodgates of lawlessness is illogical.

Security Sector members work in very difficult conditions. Sometimes this drives them into depression and other emotional conditions. The truth is that many seldom receive proper and adequate counseling or such related therapies. They see horrifying scenes whilst on duty. Jail guards double as hangmen/women.

Detectives attend to autopsies on cases they are dealing with. Traffic police officers are usually the first at accident scenes. Soldiers fight and kill poachers. In all these cases, their minds are troubled. They are human. These conditions also play a part in their behaviors. They are actually more deserving to be paid full salaries when they’re facing allegations of misconduct.

To withhold up to 50 percent of the police, prison workers and the military officers’ salaries during their interdiction or suspensions from work is punitive, insensitive and prejudicial as we do not do the same for other employees employed by the government.

The rest enjoy their full salaries when they are at home and it is for a good reason as no one should be made to suffer before being found blameworthy. The ruling party seems to have taken a position to negate the Bills and the collective opposition argue in the affirmative. The debate have just began and will continue next week Thursday, a day designated for Private Bills.

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