The Southern African Editors Forum (SAEF) and the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) have watched with concern the ongoing onslaught on media freedom in Botswana. The recent arrest and detention of Outsa Mokone, the Editor of Sunday Standard and the threat of the same that forced senior reporter of the paper, Edgar Tsimane, to seek asylum in South Africa have only come to worsen an already tense situation.
We have been informed that the cause of the current developments is that the paper published a story entitled ‘President hit in car accident while driving alone at night’. We believe that Botswana has platforms and avenues where those aggrieved by stories can complain and seek recourse. Where the Press Council of Botswana fails the complainant, the court is always there to hear any defamation case. In this particular case the incident revolved around the president in person and on his personal capacity, which means he should have approached the necessary structures to complain or gone to court. We are shocked at the abuse of public servants, public institutions and the courts to settle what in all purposes is a personal matter for President Ian Khama.
It is shocking that the Head of State of a country which has for a long time been a shining example of democracy could choose such a drastic course of action against a media house, effectively criminalising media work. A charge of sedition or treason is too serious for media work and cannot be heard of in a country claiming to champion and protect democratic credentials.
At the heart of democracy is the protection of the rights of people. This is the people’s right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to enjoy all human rights. In this case the newspaper’s right to publish without fear or favour was trampled on; Mokone’s right to legal representation during his 23 hours detention was denied.
As the two organisations we note that Tsimane has made contact with the SA department of Home Affairs and has been advised of the procedure for asylum seeking. We encourage him to follow this up and for the department to handle the matter with the haste it deserves.
These developments in Botswana come on the back of other worrying actions that President Khama has taken since he assumed office in 2008. These include the creation of the draconian Media Practitioners Act of 2008, and the decision by Khama to use tax-payers money to pay for ministers and senior government officials who want to sue the media.
These acts rob Botswana of any moral authority to talk and agitate for democratic reforms in any other jurisdictions. As SAEF and Sanef we urge the Botswana Government to respect and protect Media Freedom. We call on Government to drop any case they are pursuing against Mokone and to stop intimidating the media, particularly the private press, in the course of their work. President Khama must prevail upon his security apparatus to desist from spying on, bullying and intimidating the press.