- Government has suspended a segment of Radio Botswana's popular morning programme 'Masa-a-sele' "because it is not accountable". The phone-in programme had been used by opposition parties to attack the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Further, government announces plans to restrict public TV reporting of opposition party events.
The independent Gaborone-based 'Mmegi' newspaper reported last week that there would be no call-in segment in the programme. Consequently the 'Masa-a-sele' (Morning has broken) programme would become a predominantly "music and announcement" segment, and not the interactive programme it formerly was.
'Mmegi' quoted Communications Science and Technology Minister Boyce Sebetela as saying that the suspension is indefinite. Mr Sebetela told 'Mmegi' on 12 November that the phone-in programme had lost direction and was out of touch with journalist etiquette.
- My observation and that of my colleagues, both opposition and ruling party members, is that the phone in programme has turned into a strip where there is no engagement of concerned parties, the Batswana Minister was quoted saying.
Minister Sebetela added that government would defeat its dream of an educated and well-informed society by 2016, if a one-sided programme such as the phone-in section of 'Masa-a-sele', is allowed to continue in its current format.
- We have concluded that you cannot have an educated and well-informed nation without engaging the people that are being discussed, said Mr Sebetela. "It is important that those who listen should listen to well-balanced debates. While we may disagree on a lot of things, I want to believe that journalists and other parties will agree with me that the programme in its current form is not fair."
Mr Sebetela however dismissed suggestions that the programme has been suspended because opposition parties use it to attack the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) at a crucial time when elections are approaching.
Last week 'Masa-a-sele' opened the lines to the public to comment on President Festus Mogae's State of the Nation address, which he delivered on 10 November. It appears that members of Cabinet were not amused by some of the comments that were made. They felt that the programme was used to attack the President. 'Masa-a-sele' presenters also put on the spot a number of senior government officials with their incisive line of questioning.
Minister Sebetela confirmed on 13 November that his Ministry was working on a format to "make the programme fair". Apart from the call-in section, the 'Masa-a-sele' programme has news, traffic and weather reviews.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the Botswana branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Minister Sebetela admitted suspending the call-in segment only because people have complained to management on the derogatory utterances and threatened to sue the radio station.
- For us to resume the phone-in segment, a professional will have to be present during the programme to handle some of these issues, said the Minister.
He also revealed that Botswana Television (Btv) would stop covering political parties including the ruling party except for special political events such as political conferences, due to what he termed "inadequate human capacity at the television station." He quickly added that this order would not, however, affect the coverage of the President and the Vice President because they represented the nation in their positions.
Btv, he went on to say, will cover the opening of Parliament but will not be allowed to camp for opportunities to interview political leaders after Parliament.
MISA-Botswana today condemned the action of Minister Sebetela as "editorial interference in a broadcasting service which is funded by tax payers' money and which should, consequently, provide a platform for those tax payers to express their views on issues of national interest."
As Radio Botswana was the nation's only public broadcaster, MISA-Botswana in a statement said it was of the opinion its role needed "to be spelled out more clearly."
The regional media watchdog group further said it supported a model for public service media that "is built around principles that ensure public accountability, independence from partisan manipulation and a level playing field for all political actors." At the same time, MISA urged that any public media ought to be restructured as an autonomous agency or parastatal under the supervision of an independent Board.
With regard to the public making derogatory utterances on radio, MISA-Botswana Director Modise Maphanyane countered Minister Sebetela's statement saying that "bringing in a professional on the programme" would not in itself "prevent people from expressing undesirable comments or utterances."
MISA-Botswana further took issue with Minister Sebetela's statement on the coverage of political parties, indicating that the government would be "denying Batswana access to critical information that would allow them to make informed decisions on their political, economic and social futures."
The group therefore sent an appeal to the government of President Mogae "to immediately reinstate the call-in segment in the 'Masa-a-sele' programme and to facilitate the review of Botswana's Broadcasting Act of 1998 to ensure that the national broadcaster becomes a true public service broadcaster, as spelled out in the African Charter on Broadcasting."
Botswana is generally known as an exemplary country when it comes to democracy, human rights and media freedom. Independent Batswana media seldom meet hindrances when exercising their profession and the government action against Radio Botswana and Btv has caused some surprise in Botswana.
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