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Controversial media practitioners' bill announced

(MISA/IFEX) - On 27 June 2008, the government of Botswana gazetted a media practitioners' bill which is expected to regulate the media by, among other things, setting up a statutory press council. The bill also seeks to register media practitioners residing in Botswana and provides for hefty penalties for any violation of the law. As an example, anyone contravening the regulations stipulated in the bill would be liable for a penalty of 5,000 Botswana pulas (approx. US$750) or three months in prison.

The media code of ethics will also be regulated by the law and issues such as the right to reply will be enforced and will no longer be at the discretion of the editor.

In addition to the above, the bill would also introduce the role of the minister of communications, science and technology in the appointment of both the board and the members of the complaints committee of the press council. The minister would be given the statutory power to "direct that the executive committee be dissolved and that the council elects a new executive committee."

The bill also empowers the press council to make determinations on issues of competition since it is to report to the authorities regarding "whether any act by [a] publisher is in contravention of the applicable laws relating to competition issues."

The government of Botswana has long intended to implement a regulatory framework for media practitioners in the country but has in the past retreated under pressure. The mass media bill of 1997, which the government again tried to bring to parliament in 2002, is a case in point. From 2002 until the present the bill was shelved, but it has now resurfaced under the new title of the Media Practitioners Bill, 2008.

It is the position of MISA-Botswana that the current bill falls far short of the basic tenets of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The local media has always pointed out that the minister has no role to play in the press council and that registering and accrediting media practitioners is a blank cheque to those who may have ill intentions. MISA-Botswana believes that the status quo, in which the press council of Botswana is self-regulating, is sufficient. MISA-Botswana will therefore oppose the bill in its current form and calls upon media practitioners to deliberate on the issue with intensified interest.

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