Monday, September 8, 2008

The Vice-President of the Republic of Botswana, Lt. Gen. Mompati s. Merafhe, MP, to the annual awards dinner of MISA - Botswana Chapter

source: Republic of Botswana (7/9/08): TAUTONA TIMES no 26 of 2008
The Weekly Electronic Press Circular of the Office of the President "Democracy, Development, Dignity and Discipline"


[Salutations]...Ladies and Gentlemen:

1. It is a pleasure to be able to join you tonight at this Annual Gala Dinner and Media Awards, organised by the Botswana Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). I am aware that these awards have become an important annual event for recognizing and celebrating quality in local journalism.

2. Some may doubt my veracity when I say that being here is, indeed, a pleasure. This past week I received all sorts of comment, from all sorts of people who, in so many words, suggested that I would be walking into a proverbial lion's den tonight.

3. Distinguished members of the Fourth Estate, I have much more respect for you than that. If the pen be mightier than the sword, it must surely be a more than a match for a mere feline's claw.

4. And anyway, people fear most what they understand least. The experienced game-tracker does not fear the lion; she or he rather has a healthy respect for its habits and habitat. It should be the same for an experienced politician, or any other public figure, when being tracked by the press.

5. As a public figure with some experience, I long ago realised that the press are as much part of the environment of public affairs as the lion is a part of nature. Ideally, all those who are in the public eye should learn to respect the press, by better understanding the environment in which it operates.

6. But such respect should, ideally, also be reciprocated. Between the press and politicians, in particular, mutual respect should be based on a common recognition of the separate and vital roles each can and should play in the cycle of democratic development.

7. The American President John Kennedy perhaps best expressed a politician's appreciation for the discomforting role of the news media in a democracy when he stated (and I quote):

"There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press."

8. The wise politician should leave the profession of journalism to professional journalists.

9. By the same token, when professing to report the news, as opposed to serving up opinion, professional journalists would be wise to appreciate the difference between political reporting and partisan engagement, between balanced analysis and mere polemics.

10. Newspapers and broadcasters have always been platforms for political activists. But, at least in quality publications, their role is not to be confused with that of the professional news gatherer.

11. That journalism in this country should strive to see itself, and be appreciated by others as a profession ought to be seen as a challenge, and not a controversy.

12. It is, moreover, a challenge which remains global as well as domestic in its scope.

13. I am informed that this year the International Federation of Journalist (IFJ) has launched an Ethics in Journalism Initiative, as a worldwide campaign to (and I quote):

"Reinstate the values and a clear mission to the journalistic profession, while aiming to increase press freedom and promote quality journalism."

14. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Botswana no longer numbers among the more than 100 countries in which the IFJ, the world's largest and most influential grouping of journalists, is represented through an active and recognised association.

15. Ladies and Gentlemen, in this modern world, where it is increasingly common for many of us to change our professions during the course of our lives, there is a continuing need to nurture professionalism by respecting professional norms and boundaries.

16. As most of you are aware, I have been a professional soldier, and indeed a policeman as well. But, I stopped being an active part of either of these professions when I put away their uniforms.

17. Is it really so different for journalists? If you wish to join politics by all means do so, you will be walking in the footsteps of many others. But, first turn in your press card; presuming that you have such a card to turn in.

18. This is not to deny the legitimate interest of others in your profession, or you in others. In a democratic society journalism is no more the exclusive domain of journalists, than politics the preserve of politicians, or governance simply the sphere of the civil service.

19. While, we each have our boundaries, we are each also answerable to the general public, who are the ultimate watchdogs of all of us.

20. Ladies and Gentleman, I believe it would be remiss of me if I did not at least touch on the controversial topic of the Media Practitioner's Bill, whose final consideration, as you all know, has been deferred to the next sitting of Parliament.

21. In this respect, let me preface my remarks by clearly stating that it is not for me, tonight, to attempt to open or close any doors on the final outcome of deliberations over the Bill.

22. While we may rightly differ on the details of the Bill, which remain open to discussion; it is my hope that we can at least here reach a greater understanding of its intent.

23. Albert Camus, who famously wrote in journals without to my knowledge ever claiming to be a journalist, observed that (and I quote): "Free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad."

24. I believe that all of us here agree that freedom of expression is a prerequisite of quality journalism.

25. Let us further recognise that striking a balance between the rights and responsibilities of the press, e.g. the right of individuals to free speech with their corresponding rights to personal privacy and human dignity, is a contentious issue for any open society. It, therefore, is no surprise that Bill before Parliament has attracted critical comment.

26. Government welcomes, and in my view has a responsibility to respond to, the questions and concerns that have been raised about the Bill from various stakeholders.

27. What I have found to be unfortunate, however, has been the tendency on the part of some critics to impute improper motives behind the Bill. Whatever one may think about it current content, it is an undeniable fact that the Bill is an outcome of consultation, now dating back over a decade.

28. Out of this long process there has, I believe, emerged a strong consensus that if Botswana is to continue to grow as a knowledge based economy, as well as free society, it will need to foster a diverse media culture that operates in a fair and professional manner. In the end this is not just a challenge for media practitioners and Government, but society as a whole.

29. With respect to Government's motive in presenting the current Bill, the public can be reassured that its stated purpose is to establish a Press Council that (to quote from its text): "Shall operate without any political or other bias or interference, and shall be wholly independent and separate from the government, any political party or any other body."

30. In carrying out this purpose the Council and its Committees shall further adhere to a professional Code of Ethics, as determined by the media themselves. This is, in my view, the very essence of self-regulation.

31. The role of the Council is also explicit in its stated objectives, which include the preservation of media freedom, as well as promotion of good ethical standards and professional conduct among media practitioners.

32. The Council is further empowered to sponsor training in media work, advise on matters pertaining to the education and training of media practitioners and to undertake such research into the performance of the press as may be consistent with the furtherance of the Council's objectives.

33. Contrary to what has been implied by some, the governing body of the Council will be its Executive Committee, who are to be elected by, and responsible to, it's general membership.

34. In keeping with international best practice, as well as the structure of the already existing Press Council, the Bill further provides for institutional membership and accountability. It is, therefore, proposed that the Press Council, not Government, be responsible for such things as the registration and accreditation of resident media practitioners.

35. Like similar bodies around the world, it is understood that the Council, and certainly not Government, who would thus be tasked with defining its own professional boundaries in determining who are qualified to call themselves a journalists.

36. In addition, our aspiring Camus can be rest assured that nowhere does the Bill say that only professional journalists will be allowed to contribute to periodicals. No where in the world does such an impractical restriction apply.

37. What is well understood around the world is that journalists are empowered by being professionally accredited to carry out their work. If anything this is especially true for journalists coming from our continent who too often find it difficult to operate in the absence of some form of recognized identity.

38. The Bill further provides for the Complaints and Appeals Committees, which are separate from the Council's governing executive, to be established as independent adjudicating bodies.

39. I am aware that the proposed role of the Minister to act as an appointing authority for these two bodies has become a bone of contention. Perhaps there is a need for further understanding on this point.

40. I am, however, also aware that the Bill's intent that these bodies be seen as independent is manifest in the conditions it imposes on their membership. Thus members of the Complaints Committee should have a serious interest in the furtherance of the communicative value of the press, but not have a material financial interest in the media or be a media employee. They must, furthermore, not be a member of the National Assembly or any District, Town or City Council, or an employee or official of any political party or similar organization.

41. Also, according to the Bill, the Appeals Committee shall consist of:
* a legal practitioner, admitted to practice in the courts of Botswana, who shall be the chairperson of the Committee;
* a member of the public; and
* a representative of the media recommended by the Council.

42. The Minister may, otherwise, only intervene in the Council's affairs in the extraordinary circumstance where its Executive fails to submit its annual financial report. In this specific context the Minister may direct that the Executive be dissolved for the purpose of electing a new one.

43. However they may be constituted, let us also bear in mind the purpose of the Council's two adjudication bodies, as set out in the Bill, is to uphold the Code of Ethics, as determined by and for the media themselves.

44. My understanding is that such a Code already exists, to which I am further informed all major media organisations in our country now subscribe.

45. Having examined the Code, I am personally convinced that it contains the basic guidelines for a press that is not only free, but also respectful of the freedom and dignity of others. According to the Code, media practitioners in Botswana should: "Never publish information that they know to be false or maliciously make unfounded allegations about others that are intended to harm their reputation."

46. There is a further commitment to being honest and fair, as well as accurate, when compiling reports. In this respect reporters "must check their facts properly," while editors and publishers "must take proper care not to publish inaccurate material." Before a media institution publishes a report, it is further mandated that it must not only ensure all reasonable steps have been taken to check for accuracy but also that: "The facts should not be distorted by reporting them out of the context in which they occurred."

47. In this respect the Code states: "A media practitioner shall distinguish clearly in his/her publications between comment, conjecture and fact. The comment must be a genuine expression of opinion relating to fact. Comment or conjecture must not be presented in such a way as to create the impression that it is established fact."

48. The Code further provides that: "If a Media Institution discovers that it has published a report containing a significant distortion of the facts, it MUST publish a correction promptly and with comparable prominence."

49. If it discovers that the report that has caused harm it must, furthermore, "publish an apology promptly."

50. Finally the Code provides for the Right of Reply or Rebuttal - "Where a person or organization believes that a media report contains inaccurate information or has unfairly criticized the person or organization, the Media Institution concerned MUST give the person or organization a fair opportunity to reply."

51. Taken together the above guidelines go a long way towards encompassing what any society should legitimately expect from its media, and indeed what media practitioners ought to expect from themselves and each other.

52. From this brief synopsis of the core principles of the Bill and the Code which it is expected to uphold, it should be clear that Bill has been conceived as an instrument to professionally empower the media.

53. It is, in my view, therefore unfair to suggest that the Bill is somehow an attempt on the part of Government to control the press or otherwise undermine the fundamental freedom media practitioners enjoy in accordance with the Constitutional right of all Batswana to freely give and receive information.

54. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me conclude by stating that there is no doubt in my mind that the news media has, on balance, been a force for progress in our country. But, this should not make us complacent. You can be better; just as you could yet do worse.

55. Though we may be reluctant to admit the fact, I believe that most of us here gathered appreciate that meeting the standards of the Code of Media Ethics requires greater effort on the part of key players, including a Press Council which has sufficient capacity and authority.

56. The urgent need to move towards professional standards that are second to none is underscored by the fact that the world is taking an increased interests in our affairs, and indeed many of your publications.

57. The global circulation of locally sourced online news and information about our country has, in fact been steadily growing. While this means that quality local reporting may now be reaching a global audience, it also means that locally published misinformation can give rise to worldwide confusion.

58. Director of Ceremonies, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me conclude by taking this opportunity to, nonetheless, once more reaffirm that Government appreciates the role that is on balance being played by the press, both public and private, as a partner in national development.

59. We continue recognise the media's status as an emerging industry with the, not as yet fully realized, potential to promote further economic and social growth.

60. We further acknowledge its contribution as a job creator and marketing platform, as well as watchdog, for continued good governance in the private as well as public sectors.

61. To better fulfil all these tasks our media, like the rest of us, must aim to be as good as the best. It should, in other words, strive to routinely achieve the quality benchmarks that we will be honouring here tonight. I thank you for your attention.

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