The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Botswana Chapter, watched with grave disappointment at the way government was dealing with the Botswana Communication Regulatory Authority Bill- BOCRA, which has been sneaked to the floor of Parliament despite efforts by stakeholders to engage government on the issue.
Following the gazetting of the bill at the end of 2011, MISA Botswana issued a statement expressing concern regarding this bill which seeks to repeal the Broadcasting Act of 1998. Subsequent to the statement we wrote letter to government to seek audience and we were hopeful that an engagement with the main stakeholders, MISA Botswana being one of such, would avail us a chance to express our concerns with the bill.
Unfortunately, it was therefore very disappointing to see that a parliamentary order paper was hastily amended on Monday morning to accommodate the bill and thereby rush it through Parliament, somehow to the surprise of most MPs who were obviously not prepared for the debate. We strongly believe it is wrong in a democracy society which Botswana prides itself as one, for the government to ignore voices of key stakeholders and to run roughshod with minimal if any consultations..
It is our submission here that the Broadcasting Act of 1998 which is being repealed was a product of a fair and transparent process with the involvement of all stakeholders in the broadcasting and media industry as well as the general public and is representative of their views, interests and concerns. It should then follow that any attempt to change it, should go through the same process of due diligence. The BOCRA BILL did not and we ask Why the rush?
It is our humble submission that it is critical to go back to the drawing board because the new bill omits provisions for public and community radio stations which were clearly spelt out in the Broadcasting act of 1998. The 1998 Act clearly defined community broadcasting service as " fully controlled by a non-profit entity and carried on for non-profitable purposes [and] serves a particular community" while public broadcasting service was defined as "a broadcasting service provided by any statutory body which is funded either wholly or partly through State revenues".
The bill also went on to define what private broadcasting service meant, indicating a clear adherence to a three tier system of broadcasting. Delineating the duties of the National Broadcasting Board, the broadcasting act of 1998 stipulated that the; "Board may establish different application and assessment procedures for private, community and public broadcasting including invitations through tendering process and shall, to the maximum extent possible, consistent with safety, efficiency and economy, give preference to enterprises which are owned by citizens or in which citizens have significant shareholding". (Section 10 (1)). The question is why is this progressive provision omitted in the new bill?
The government has consistently argued that the current 'state media' qualifies to be called a public broadcaster and the question is why are we now doing away with this provision if we believe we are already compliant with the International best practice? MISA has also through the statement issued after the bill was published expressed concern over a provision in the bill which seeks to absolve the now clearly named 'state media' from regulation. We believe that the non regulation of state media is a reversal of progress already made in the licensing of Radio Botswana as public broadcaster in accordance with international best practice.
MISA Botswana believes that the provision in the act which exempts state broadcaster from regulation is a regression that may open the door for abuse. This comes at a time when there was hope that the transformation of the state media will address concerns that its programming is biased and that the medium does not offer the nation a balanced view on issues. Contrary to events elsewhere in the region and beyond, where 'retreating states' give into global and even local forces, this bill sends a message of a state in Botswana which wants more power and control and only expediently accommodates input from non-state actors.
A further example of this disturbing development is the extensive powers arrogated to the minister, which includes appointing the board and the Chief Executive Officer. Talking about this bill, in his budget speech of 2004, former minister of Finance and Development Planning, the late Baledzi Gaolathe indicated that the "legislation will be prepared to establish a new independent Regulatory Authority responsible for both telecommunications and broadcasting". MISA believes the independence of the proposed body will be grossly undermined by the powers accorded to the minister.
It is indeed unfortunate that parliament yesterday refused attempts by MP Odirile Motlhale to adjourn the debate on the bill to accommodate the much needed consultation on the issue. We wish to remind the responsible minister and parliament that Radio and television are indeed "crucial tools in the task of nation building and the creation of a free, just and tolerant society in which the right to know and freedom of expression are cherished".
These wise words were pronounced in the draft broadcasting policy which also borrows from the words of the founding father of the nation Sir Seretse Khama who once said "Broadcasting can bridge distances in space, time and knowledge itself. Radio can stimulate discussion among the people and assist in the process of democracy. People from one end of Botswana to the other can hear the opinions of their fellow countrymen, drawing us together as a nation".
As the 2002 Declaration by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights on Freedom of Expression says "State and government controlled broadcasters should be transformed into public service broadcasters, accountable to the public through the legislature rather than the government".
The broadcasting act of 1998 is in tune with this undertaking and clearly defines public service broadcasting as distinct from 'state media', now the question is when did these two, become the same thing in the eyes of government? We appeal to parliament to save our democracy from this massive setback and adjourn the debate of this matter for further consultation.
Information for editors: MISA is a non-governmental organisation with members in 11 of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries. Officially launched in September 1992, MISA focuses primarily on the need to promote free, independent and pluralistic media, as envisaged in the 1991 Windhoek Declaration. MISA seeks ways in which to promote the free flow of information and co-operation between media workers, as a principal means of nurturing democracy and human rights in Africa.
Enquiries: MISA Botswana
MISA Regional Secretariat