Botswana has seen a decline in the most serious abuses against journalists in recent years but many obstacles still hinder their work.
The state-owned media still fall far short of providing a public news service and continue to be under the government’s sway. A proposal to transform state broadcasting into a more independent public service was recently rejected. There is one state-owned newspaper and 12 privately owned ones, four of which have the same owner – Mmegi Investment Holdings. Three of the five functioning radio stations are privately owned. There are several privately owned TV channels, especially online.
Government control of the state-owned media is such that public TV and radio broadcasting policy is decided by the president’s office. The privately owned broadcast media are supervised by the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority (BOCRA), which reports directly to the government. The allocation of advertising is also managed by the president’s office and is used to exert political pressure on privately owned media outlets.
The 2008 Media Practitioners Act was repealed in 2022 in order to better protect media freedom and independence. But the law on access to information has yet to see the light of day. The legislative arsenal was reinforced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and now publishing information about the pandemic from any source other than the director of public health or the WHO is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Development of the media is limited by the small size of the advertising market, which is dominated by public procurement notices. Advertising is not allocated equitably but in accordance with the degree to which media outlets toe the government line. The decline in advertising revenue as a result of the pandemic has fuelled self-censorship by media outlets seeking to retain advertisers. The opposition has accused some privately owned media of being in the pay of the government, which allocated them advertising.
Very few women hold positions of responsibility in the media. Only two of Botswana’s 13 newspapers are run by women – The Botswana Gazette and The Voice Newspapers.
After an alarming decline in press freedom under President Ian Khama, the situation has improved markedly since Mokgweetsi Masisi became president in 2018. While journalists are rarely detained or arrested, they are sometimes the victims of police violence, especially during protests, and the intelligence services use spyware to monitor their communications. Journalists are also often subjected to social media smear campaigns. Journalists’ equipment, including mobile phones, cameras and laptops, are often seized without judicial justification or a warrant.