- Only two months before Botswana's legislative elections, the Communications Minister has taken steps to stop a political column in the country's most read newspaper. He also ordered the dropping of the press review from state radio, causing opposition protest.
Communications, Science and Technology Minister Boyce Sebeleta has announced his decision to drop the "Political Profiles" column from the state-owned newspaper 'Daily News' and the press review from state-owned 'Radio Botswana'. The Minister did not offer an explanation for the move.
Over the years, "Political Profiles" had become one of the most popular 'Daily News' columns. The paper is distributed free of charge. News editor Bapasi Mphusu says the column's removal was temporary and "dictated by the need to modernise."
The Batswana opposition questioned Mr Mphusu's explanation, however, speculating that the move was part of government efforts to prevent it from having a strong voice in the country's most widely-read newspaper, only two months before legislative elections.
The cancelling of Radio Botswana's press review, which devoted a great deal of air time to the privately-owned media, is also seen by media freedom organisations as "fresh evidence that the Communications Minister wants to silence the independent press."
- Minister Boyce Sebetela behaves dictatorially by throttling and hijacking the state media to advance the BDP agenda, commented Log Raditlhokwa in an opinion letter to Botswana's leading independent daily, 'Mmegi', on Monday. Mr Raditlhokwa denounced the growing "dictatorship in a democracy" that he held was being established in Botswana.
The government's media policy has increasingly been criticised during the last few years. 'Daily News' was previously financed entirely by the government, but Minister Sebeleta ordered the paper to start accepting advertising in 2003, and thereby compete with the privately-owned press.
Also this move was sharply criticised by private media last year. "We depend totally on advertising revenue to survive, so this change will kill off alternative voices," the editor of a local weekly had warned at the time.
Another Radio Botswana programme, "Masa-a-sele" was dropped in November 2003. It gave listeners the opportunity to express their views on current affairs issues. Minister Sebeleta claimed "Masa-a-sele" gave too much air time to criticism of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
The new government move to interfere in state news media's editorial policy has caused protests beyond the borders of Botswana. The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) today issued a press release, condemning the actions by Minister Sebeleta.
- This meddling in the editorial policies of these media outlets is unacceptable as it seriously weakens news diversity, RSF said. "The column and press review that have been removed offered a forum for the opposition in the first case, and for the privately-owned press in the second," the statement added.
The French group held that this was not the first time that Minister Sebeleta had initiated "such acts of censorship with the aim of silencing criticism" of Botswana's ruling party. "Such abuses are very worrying in what is one of Africa's most open countries as regards press freedom," RSF added.
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