Authorities accused of abusing COVID-19 restrictions to stifle expression despite improved ranking

Expression

In the recently released 2020 world press freedom index, RSF reported that press freedom violations had declined under president Mokgweetsi Masisi’s regime, elevating the country a further five places in the world rankings to position 39 from 44 out of 180 countries.

In April 2019, Botswana jumped four places in RSF’s press freedom index to position 44 out of 180 countries, up from position 48 the previous year. According to RSF, the improved ranking came after specific pledges were made to improve press freedom after the election of President Mokgweetsi Masisi in 2018, who the report said was viewed as more sympathetic to press freedom.

Under the previous regime by president Ian Khama, press freedom declined sharply. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) expressed serious concerns over the situation for media in Botswana, claiming that the government has been "aggressive and intolerant" towards the sector. Botswana fell eight places in the press freedom index between 2013 and 2018 under Khama’s administration.

Even as the country’s media freedom ranking continues to improve however, incidents of violations continued to be reported over the last year. In April 2020, President Masisi was accused of using the covid-19 pandemic to crack down on media and government critics. This followed the passing of the Emergency Powers Act by parliament which gave the president powers to rule by decree for six months. The Act introduced offences with heavy punishment, including imprisonment of up to five years or a $10,000 fine for anyone publishing information with “the intention to deceive” the public about COVID-19 or measures taken by the government to address the pandemic. In enforcing this law, it was reported that a school teacher, Rakkie Kelesamile, was arrested after challenging a claim by government that a social worker who had screened law makers in parliament had tested positive for the virus.

Days earlier, Justice Motlhabane, spokesperson of opposition party Botswana Patriotic Front was arrested and charged under the Penal Code for “degrading and maligning the leadership” after suggesting on a Facebook post that the president had declared a lengthy state of emergency “so that he could deal with his political rivals and business competitors.”

The Act also prohibits journalists from using sources other than the country’s director of health services or the World Health Organisation when reporting on COVID-19, imposing a fine of $10,000 or a five-year jail term.

Civil society however criticised the law, noting that it prevents journalists from holding authorities to account. The executive director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Botswana chapter), Tefo Phatshwane said:

“As journalists, we can’t rely on a government that we are expected to police.”

Concerns over the ability of journalists to freely undertake their work were also reported in 2019 when journalist on the investigative and political desk at Mmegi, Tsaone Basimanebotlhe’s house was raided on 17th July 2019 by officials from the Directorate of Security Services (DIS) agents and police officers who then confiscated her phone after conducting a search. The Botswana Editors Forum (EFB) and The Freedom of Expression Committee (FEC) condemned this action which they termed as harassment and intimidation of journalists for simply doing their job.

A joint statement published on 24th July 2019 read in part:

“The EFB and The FEC would like to point out that such cases of harassment and intimidation negatively impact freedom of the media and freedom of expression, which are enshrined in our constitution. Such actions cause journalists to be afraid to report news freely without fear and favour, as per the dictates of journalism ethics.”