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Arrest of two Botswana journalists condemned

Botswana’s press freedom is under fire as the recent arrest of two prominent journalists has sparked outrage among media organisations and editors in Namibia and elsewhere in Africa.

On Thursday, Ryder Gabathuse, the editor of the Botswana-based newspaper Mmegi, and reporter Innocent Selatlhwa were reportedly arrested at their offices by approximately 10 armed members of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (Diss) in a shocking display of intimidation.

Gabathuse endured a four-hour interrogation session.

While he was eventually released, the police reportedly refused to return his confiscated cellphone and laptop.

Frank Steffen, the chairperson of the Editors’ Forum of Namibia (EFN), says the incident raises serious concerns about press freedom and personal liberties in Botswana.

“This is extremely concerning in a country that used to be an example to southern African states in the past regarding personal freedom, including press freedom,” he says.

One particularly alarming detail, as mentioned in a widely circulated tweet, is the comment reportedly made by one of the officers during the arrest: “I am a warrant.”

“What clearly proves this to be a serious breach is the arbitrary manner of the arrest that resulted in a release without charge, yet the authorities held on to the electronic equipment of these journalists. This cannot be condoned by anyone,” Steffen says. Joseph Ailonga, the secretary general of Saef, says the incident undermines democracy and freedom of the media in the broader Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

“We are hoping that Botswana and the SADC will take this very seriously and ensure that it becomes more progressive in terms of freedom of the media,” he says.

Tangeni Amupadhi, the editor of The Namibian, says the harrassment of journalists not only has a direct impact on media professionals, but also affects society as a whole.

“The authorities need to improve on the way they treat journalists and press freedom and other instances of freedom of expression,” he says.

Willie Mponda, the chairperson of the Southern African Editors’ Forum (Saef), points out the detrimental impact these actions could have on Botswana’s standing in the global press freedom index.

“We implore the Botswana government to embrace a culture of freedom of expression and freedom of the media without intimidation, as they are the bedrock of a democratic state,” he says. Botswana, once a shining example of freedom of expression and freedom of the media, now ranks 40th on the 2023 Reporters Without Borders Index.

The recent arbitrary arrests of Gabathuse and Selatlhwa have reignited concerns about the criminal procedure and evidence bill in Botswana. The Botswana Editors’ Forum and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Botswana previously fought this bill, and their efforts led to important changes before it became law.

One of the crucial modifications was that all agencies, including Diss, were required to adhere to the rule of law and could not arrest and detain individuals at their discretion.

“Saef and Taef (The African Editors’ Forum) stand ready to help editors in Botswana as it did last year, should the need arise again,” Mponda says.

Taef chairperson Jovial Rantao has expressed shock, stating the arrests are harmful to democracy and smacks of dictatorship.

Rantao calls on Diss to publicly apologise for their illegal activities and return Gabathuse’s laptop and cellphone.

“They should assure citizens of Botswana that they will respect the role of the media and will not abuse the power accorded to them by the constitution,” he says.

The organisation calls on the editor and journalists to take legal action against the Diss.

“We call on the president of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, to publicly rein in the Diss and other law-enforcement agencies and ensure that a climate is created in which media freedom will reign as the country prepares for national elections,” Rantao says.

‘REGRETTABLE’

Meanwhile, Misa Botswana and the Botswana Editors’ Forum have met and engaged the leadership of the Diss, during which the latter conceded that the manner in which the two were arrested was regrettable.

“Diss therefore recommitted to engage the media more often in the furtherance of a better working relationship,” the two organisations said in a joint statement.