- Media watchdogs have criticised attempts by the Botswana government to control state media coverage of a controversial programme to relocate the San ("Bushmen") community from their ancestral land in a game reserve.
The San were relocated to settlements outside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) in 1997 as a result of government plans to set aside the protected area for wildlife and tourism development. Rights groups have claimed that the San community was forcibly removed from their ancestral land to make way for diamond explorations in the CKGR. The government has maintained that the emphasis has always been persuasion and voluntary relocation.
The CKGR was created in the last days of British colonial rule before Botswana's independence in 1966, and guaranteed the San continued occupation of land their ancestors had lived on for thousands of years. The San launched a legal challenge against their relocation from CKGR in 2002. Deliberations on the San's claim only began recently and a judgment is expected on 13 December.
Andrew Sesinyi, deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, urged public media editors in a recent memo to ensure that all negative reports on the relocation programme produced by the independent media were "contrasted strongly with freshly sought government statements".
He also directed the public media to consider the memo "both as an instruction and as a guideline" on covering issues related to the CKGR.
Mr Sesinyi told public media practitioners that "it is a worldwide practice that professional journalists are patriots first and foremost, before anything else". Without mentioning names, the directive also told government media practitioners that journalists in the privately owned media were unpatriotic and were "rallying behind the enemy" in their reporting on the CKGR issue.
International media watchdog Reporters sans Frontiéres (RSF) described the memo as "archaic", "risky" and "unusual" for Botswana, and said although the country did not have laws that threatened media freedom, the government should "resist the temptation to try to regiment" the media.
Mr Sesinyi also appealed to media houses not to consider the directive as an attack on press freedom.
RSF said it was hard to understand how a senior official who "insults" the privately owned press and tells the public media what to do could dismiss the idea that he was attacking press freedom.
Botswana's media landscape is dominated by the public media, especially 'Botswana TV' and 'Radio Botswana'. The privately owned media - consisting of two radio stations, a dozen or so weeklies and monthlies, and the daily 'Mmegi' that only reaches urban areas - have little national impact, the media watchdog said.
Sello Motseta, editor of a weekly independent newspaper and a representative of the Botswana Media Workers Union, said government efforts to censor the media were inconsistent with the country's well-established democratic credentials. He said government should let all media houses cover issues of national interest as impartially as they can, and let the public be the judge.
The UN media 'IRIN' was unable to get comment from Mr Sesinyi and other senior ministry officials.
The government directive came three days after the main opposition Botswana Congress Party (BCP) published the results of its own fact-finding mission into the relocation programme. Calling on the government to reopen negotiations with the San, the BCP report confirmed long-standing media claims that the relocation had jeopardised the lives of the San.
A public media journalist who spoke to 'IRIN' on condition of anonymity described the government order as "unfortunate" and a backward step for the Botswana media.
"Government has always tried to manipulate our coverage of issues on the basis of national interest and national security considerations. However, this is the first time we have been given specific orders on how to cover a particular issue," the reporter said. "Journalists are very apprehensive about this development - no one knows what will happen to those who violate it, or just how many such orders are coming. What is clear is that press freedom is being directly threatened by the government."
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