Concerns for Press Freedom in Botswana

Friday, March 29, 1996

CONCERNS FOR PRESS FREEDOM IN BOTSWANA

On 29 March 1996, the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern at a number of attacks on freedom of the press in Botswana in recent months, including the prospect of a new media law and a tax on independent newspapers. The CCPJ is particularly concerned at the ongoing legal persecution of journalists who refuse to reveal their sources.

As of the end of March, police were said to be threatening to charge a journalist under security legislation, after the privately-owned "Botswana Guardian" newspaper published details in its 1 March edition of a statement made to the police during a murder inquiry. According to the Namibia-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the article was based on a transcript of an incriminating statement made to the police by Molefe Matswe, whose daughter was murdered.

The Criminal Investigations Department (CID) has reportedly opened an investigation into the newspaper and the author of the article, Professor Malema, said the police have also threatened to charge him under the National Security Act, which carries a penalty of up to 25 years' imprisonment. MISA reported that the "Botswana Guardian" has not been charged yet but Mr. Malema is likely to be harged. We urge you not to charge Mr. Malema for upholding his right to protect his sources, or for any other reason that contradicts the principles of a free media. It is imperative for journalists to respect confidentiality in order to retain the public's trust.

The Botswanan government has a history of trying to force journalists to reveal their sources. Previously, in September 1995, the "Botswana Guardian" refused to reveal a source in another case. As a result, the paper had to pay additional damages in an out-of-court settlement of a criminal defamation suit brought against the newspaper by Botswana's central bank governor.

In addition, a 10 per cent tax on private newspaper sales was announced on 12 February 1996. Journalists say the tax will make access to information even more difficult. The sales tax will jeopardize independent newspapers, which already pay several taxes, and will make it prohibitively expensive for readers, thus imposing a de facto form of censorship. According to MISA, the sales tax will go into effect only after 30 April.

The CCPJ is additionally concerned that the Botswana government is also reportedly in the process of drafting new legislation on media ethics. The CCPJ believes the media should be self-regulated and that government regulation will likely restrict freedom of expression. MISA reported that authorities are debating the new law in secret and that it is likely to be tabled before the next session of Parliament this July.