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Briefing paper

BP60: Batswana support press freedom and critical speech

Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 60
1 Mar 2009 Botswana
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Botswana has been known for its tolerance of freedom of speech and independence of the media. Tswana traditional society was based on freedom of speech where individuals could state their views without fear. This freedom of speech, which was coincident with free press, was encapsulated in the maxim “Mmualebe o bua la gagwe” (every person has the right to his or her own opinion). However, in the last few months there seem to be increasing indicators of growing intolerance of free speech, such as political parties (both Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and Botswana National Front (BNF)) clamping down on free-speaking members, and government coming down hard on critical voices in the press. The BDP has institutionalized its parliamentary caucus such that its decisions are binding on its Members of Parliament, irrespective of how their constituencies feel on the matter. Although he was later pardoned, the recall of Pono Moatlhodi, following what was dubbed “undisciplined behaviour” and utterances that “brought the party name into disrepute,” showed the determination of the BDP to silence critical thought. Botsalo Ntuane, a vibrant BDP backbencher, was also forced to retract statements he made regarding stringent liquor regulations. Kabo Morwaeng’s public condemnation of suggestions that Central Committee elections should not be held in an election year also drew the wrath of the party. And this lack of tolerance of opposing views is not only characteristic of the ruling party. The BNF has likewise expelled a number of its members for holding different views from those of the leadership. For instance, it has, amongst others, expelled its Member of Parliament for Lobatse, Nehemiah Modubule for holding a different view with the party leadership on whether to hold a party conference or congress in 2008. He was for the latter as it would have the mandate to elect a new leadership. There have also been instances where Radio Botswana and Botswana Televion (Btv) programmes such as Masa-a-sele and Matlhoaphage were not aired by government owned media because they were alleged to be critical of government. The Media Practitioners Bill, which will give the government greater control over the media, sailed through Parliament on 10th December 2008 without debate. The Bill stipulates that no journalist resident in Botswana may work in the country unless he or she has been registered and accredited by a government-appointed executive committee. To this end there has been tension between the government and media houses such that the Press Council intimated it would take government to court if it were to be assented into law. The media, especially the private media, is widely regarded as a watchdog of democratic politics. In Botswana, the media has largely played this role. Recently, hardly a week passes by without the private media exposing scandals implicating senior government officials, including some cabinet ministers. Activists believe that increased use of the media can expand the range of considerations citizens bring to bear in making political judgments. However, the government has shown its capacity to withdraw BATSWANA SUPPORT PRESS FREEDOM AND CRITICAL SPEECH 2 advertising in those media houses that have been critical of government, as has happened with the Midweek Sun and the Botswana Guardian. These could be seen as early warning signs of an intolerant government. In addition, protection of individual freedoms, such as people’s freedom to state their views without any fear, is also a cornerstone of democracy. But while individual freedoms are guaranteed in the constitution of the country, their enjoyment is still not automatic. Given these concerns, how do ordinary Batswana feel about freedom of speech and of the press? Batswana overwhelmingly express support for media and individual freedoms. This suggests that freedom of expression – both personal and collective – is regarded by the Batswana as an essential attribute of a functioning democracy. Despite recent government attempts to suppress the media and individual freedoms, Batswana have remained firm in their commitment to these freedoms. These findings were revealed by the recent Afrobarometer survey of a representative sample of 1200 adult Batswana conducted in October 2008 by faculty from the Departments of Political and Administrative Studies, Sociology and Statistics at the University of Botswana.