Public contempt for private media

All you need to know about President Ian Khama’s view of the private media in Botswana is encapsulated in a quote he delivered at his party’s recent national conference. “These people are shallow in their reasoning,” he said, “and do not contribute anything that is good to the society.”

August 29th, 2013

All you need to know about President Ian Khama’s view of the private media in Botswana is encapsulated in a quote he delivered at his party’s recent national conference. “These people are shallow in their reasoning,” he said, “and do not contribute anything that is good to the society.”

Since emerging into the full glare of the media spotlight in 1998 when he was appointed Botswana’s vice-president by Festus Mogae, Khama has made no secret of the fact that he has little – or no – regard for the private media. His view is that the private media is a pawn used by the opposition and the trade unions to ‘get’ him and his party, and – since becoming president – to discredit his administration.

During his party’s conference, Khama devoted a significant part of his speech to lambasting private media houses – labelling them unpatriotic masters of disinformation and deception. The private media, he said, “constantly lead people astray in pursuit of their unpatriotic and nefarious agendas against everything that their government does whether good or bad.”

Warming to his media-bashing task, Khama added that “they have blinded themselves with negativity in their desperate attempt to discredit us in order to promote the opposition. They pretend to understand complex problems when they don’t. They jump to conclusions before finding out the facts. They condemn without any responsibility and often start a fire without knowing how to put it out, and act with reckless disregard for the consequences as to whether or not they harm others or the nation.”

This is a shocking attack on the private media – even for a region where it is common for presidents to denigrate any media that does not follow the State House line. But it is not surprising.

This is how president Khama views the private media and he is unapologetic about it. In fact, he is on record as saying that he pays little attention to the private media and that that he doesn’t read local private newspapers because they have nothing to offer except articles bashing him and the ruling party.

But while his views are clear, the reason for his deep-seated antagonism is much murkier. Indeed, the key question is why is Khama so contemptuous of the private media?

His supporters argue that his opposition to the private media is justifiable because the private media has always given the president a hard time ever since he joined party politics. They claim that the private media has constantly tried to discredit him by spreading the notion that he has only risen to the top of the political tree because he is the son of Botswana’s popular founding father Sir Seretse Khama.

And they add that Khama has – over the years – tried to engage the private media by personally visiting private media houses and inviting journalists, including editors to his office for interviews. However, the media has merely rewarded him more negative coverage, which is – they believe – meant purely to embarrass and belittle him.

‘Cry baby’

On the other hand, the private media feels that Khama is a cry baby and should understand that – as the Head of State – he will always be the centre of media attention. His predecessor, Festus Mogae, also had his differences with the private media houses but he has never labelled them ‘unpatriotic’, even when their reports were viewed as anti-government. In fact, Mogae frequently engaged the media without fear and even held press conferences now and then.

Needless to say, Khama is not a fan of press conferences. Indeed, he has not held a single press conference while in office. Interviewed recently, he made it clear that press conferences were not his priority but that his office is always open to anyone who wants to meet him, including the media. Unsurprisingly, the private media doubts that his door will always be ‘open’ to them.

However, despite his deep dislike for the private media, most people – including the private press – do not feel that Khama’s government has actively tried to curtail the freedom of the press in Botswana. No journalists or reporters have been fined or sent to jail for their work. Meanwhile, the alarming Media Practitioners Act, which was meant to shrink the media space, has not been put into practice, even though it was passed by parliament in 2008 – due to the lack of cooperation from publishers, the Law Society of Botswana and other stakeholders.

Control of state media

But no one should feel sorry for President Khama. He might be the target of criticism from the private media but he enjoys the boundless support of the state media, including state-run Botswana Television (the country’s only national TV station), two state-run national radio stations and a state-run daily newspaper – all of which are very happy to air his views and run government propaganda. Needless to say opposition parties battle for space in the state media – and so must turn to the private media to get their messages across.

None of this implies that the private media is perfect. There have been unfortunate instances when the private press has unfairly injured members of the public – and indeed the government – with its reporting. However, everyone has the right to redress and the procedures to follow are clear and available to all.

But Botswana’s private media plays a critical role in helping to hold the government – and yes, the president – to account. For our democratically-elected leader to publicly dismiss the private media as useless and biased is unacceptable and irresponsible. The private press remains an important player in our democratic set-up and it should not be dismissed as unpatriotic by anyone, let alone a sitting president.

Fortunately, Khama might dismiss the private media houses but he cannot make them go away – and everyone in Botswana should be grateful for that.

Contacts

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