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Botswana has hurriedly passed a controversial media law that journalists fear will restrict their work, say the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and news reports.

The Media Practitioners Act was passed last year, but parliamentarians had asked for amendments and had expected to discuss them at parliamentary committees for fine-tuning this year.

Instead, the government published the act in the official gazette over the holidays, making it law.

Under the act, journalists are required to get the consent of a new Media Council before they can work. The council is a government-appointed body that has the power to impose fines and jail time on journalists it determines have violated standards - including failing to register.

Botswana already had an independent, self-regulated Press Council.

"It is a very repressive law because one cannot practise journalism in Botswana without the consent of (the) Media Council, which excludes media practitioners, publishers or anybody with an interest in the media from its decision-making structures," the Botswana chapter of MISA told The Associated Press.

MISA says the act amounts to direct, political interference in the media - more so as Botswana has a general election this year - and will lead to self-censorship by media "fearing retributive measures by the council."

According to news reports, the law as it appeared in the official gazette included a passage saying it was designed, among other things, to "monitor the activities of the media" and to create a body to "receive any complaints directed against media practitioners."

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- AP via International Herald Tribune:
(21 January 2009)

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