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Proposed law would give government too much power to interfere with media, legislator says

(MISA/IFEX) - Botswana Member of Parliament for Mogoditshane, Patrick Masimolole has called upon the Minister of Communications, Science and Technology to drop the Media Practitioners Bill arguing that the proposed law grants too much power to the ministry in interfering with the operations of the media.

Masimolole said he supports other MPs who have urged the Minister of Communications, Science and Technology to consider withholding the bill pending further consultations. The bill seeks to establish a Press Council for Botswana for the purpose of preserving the maintenance of high professional standards within the industry as well as for registering journalists. Only registered journalists would be allowed to work in Botswana. Contributing on the same issue, the MP for Letlhakeng East, Dr. Gordon Mokgwathi, said the news media should be accorded the right to regulate itself through its code of ethics. Dr. Mokgwathi said the proposed bill would give the minister the right to appoint members of crucial committees, which contravenes the principle of self-regulation as desired in news media practice.

He said the fact that government would be financing the activities of the proposed press council through tax payers' money means somebody would have to account to the public, which would undermine the principle of self-regulation.

Dr. Mokgwathi said: "He who pays the piper calls the tune", to support his argument. He added that the bill would give the government the power to interfere with the media. He said self-regulation means no government involvement. He added that he was against self-regulation being made into a law, arguing that in countries where there was a press council such as Australia, self-regulation was not made through legislation. He asked whether the private news media and the public one would be treated the same under the proposed bill.

MP Masimolole said he wonders why the minister is seeking to take charge of the entire media industry when she is in unable to control the departments of information and broadcasting services. Masimolole said the minister recently admitted that she was unable to control the Department of Broadcasting Services,which resulted in three leadership changes in the department and culminated with the failure of the leadership to apply for a broadcasting license for Radio Botswana 2.

The Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, however, denied in the parliamentary debate that she has failed to control these departments. She said the Department of Broadcasting Services had leadership problems that led to three leadership changes, hence their failure to apply for a broadcasting license.

Masimolole, however, maintained that Parliament should not pass the bill because of the good attitude and character of the incumbent Minister of Communications, Science and Technology. He said the proposed bill could be abused as it gives the minister excessive powers which will undermine the principle of self-regulation of the media. Masimolole said the fact that Radio Botswana is still a government broadcaster under the total control of the minister, as opposed to being a public broadcaster, is undesirable.

BACKGROUND:
The Government of Botswana, on 27 June 2008, gazetted the Media Practitioners Bill, 2008, which is expected to regulate media practitioners by setting up a statutory Press Council, among other measures. The bill also seeks to register media practitioners residing in Botswana and provides hefty penalties for any violation of the law. For instance, anyone contravening the bill shall be liable to a penalty of P5000 (approx. US$760) or three months in prison.

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

The other area of interest is the introduction of the role of the minister in the appointment of both the board and the members of the complaints committee of the Press Council. The minister is 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 determine issues of competition, as it shall report to the competition authority "whether any act by (a) publisher is in contravention of the applicable laws relating to competition issues."

Updates alert on the Media Practitioners Bill: http://www.ifex.org/20en/content/view/full/95125

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