Monday, February 9, 2009

Response to open letter, published in the Botswana Guardian newspaper, calling on H.E. the President to reconsider the Media Practitioners Act, 2008

source: Republic of Botswana (9/2/09): TAUTONA TIMES no 2 of 2009
The Weekly Electronic Press Circular of the Office of the President "Democracy, Development, Dignity and Discipline"

C2) 6/2/09: Response to open letter, published in the 6/2/09 edition of the Botswana Guardian newspaper, calling on H.E. the President to reconsider the Media Practitioners Act, 2008:

The Government of Botswana has noted the publication in a local Guardian newspaper (6/2/09; page 14) of what purports to be an open letter to H.E. the President by a number of freedom of expression organisations calling for a review of the Media Practitioners Act, as passed by Parliament on the 11th of December 2008.

Having taken note the contents of the letter we are of the view that it reflects a number of basic misunderstandings about the Act. In this respect we respectfully disagree with the letter’s statement (paragraph 4) that the Act is in anyway “a threat to the rights and free operations and existence of the media in Botswana.”

We take further exception to the statement (paragraph 4) that the “Media Council will in fact be appointed by the minister without any stated criteria of media practitioners and organisations, which have been relegated to membership and associate membership roles.”

This in our view shows a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the Council and the role of its membership.

Section 3 the Act, clearly states that: “The Council shall be a body corporate with perpetual succession, capable of suing and being sued” while Section 4 further affirms that: “The Council shall operate without any political or other bias or interference, and shall be wholly independent and separate from government, any political party or any other body.”

We further note that Section 18 of the Act mandates that:

“The governing body of the Council shall be the Executive Committee which shall consist of the following members - (a) a chairperson, vice-chairperson, treasurer; and (b) 6 additional members [and that]

“The Executive Committee shall be elected at an ordinary general meeting or a special general meeting of the Council.”

Section 22 of the Act goes on to confirm that: “Any allowances payable to the members of the Executive Committee shall be paid from the funds generated by the Council.”

As can be seen, the above quoted sections of the Act are also contradictory to the letter’s assertion (paragraph 5) that the Media Council’s independence “is not supported by any clause in the act” and that “The council will be financed by the Government”.

Contrary to the letter’s suggestion (paragraph 5) that the Act is aimed solely at the private media we would observe that Section 7 of the Act stipulates that: “The membership of the Council shall consist of all publishers of news and information, whether or not in the public or private sector.”

We further find nothing in the actual content of the Act that could in anyway be construed as “criminalising the profession of journalism” (paragraph 6). In this respect we note that the only penalty clause in the entire Act is strictly limited to publishers who contravene their obligations under Section 7 of the Act to register and pay their membership fees.

With respect to issues of accreditation raised in the letter (paragraphs 7-10) we would note that Section 6 of the Act simply mandates that:

“A resident media practitioner shall be registered and accredited by the Executive Committee [and that]

“An application for registration and accreditation shall be made in accordance with the regulations made by the executive committee.”

As can be seen there is nothing in the Section 6 (or the rest of the Act) that compels any individual to seek accreditation by the Executive Committee, which, as previously noted is freely elected by the Council’s membership.

Neither is there anything in the section or elsewhere in the Act that bars those not accredited by the council as Media Practitioners from contributing to publications through either “old” or “new” media.

We furthermore believe that any concern about the nature of the Media Council should be allayed by its core objectives, as listed under section 5 of the Act, which are:

“to preserve media freedom [and]

“to uphold standards of professional conduct and promote good ethical standards and discipline among media practitioners.

Finally, we wish to note that the Media Practitioners Act 2008 was the product of extended stakeholder consultations beginning in 2003, which involved local media organisations as well as members of the public, prior to its presentation as a Bill before Parliament. The Bill was subsequently debated in Parliament from June 2008, during which time stakeholders were encouraged to suggest further amendments. In this respect the Bill was only passed in December 2008 after passing through Committee stage where it was extensively amended.

In the context of the above legislative process it is unclear to us what outcome the letter’s authors’ would contemplate in asking the Executive branch at this early stage to review what is an Act of Parliament.

A copy of the Act is attached FYI [still available on request].

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