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The Canadian government has announced that it will be jointly hosting the second annual Global Conference for Media Freedom alongside Botswana. While the previous year's conference was hosted in the United Kingdom, the 2020 conference will be co-hosted online due to the ongoing ongoing health crisis.
"A vibrant and free media is a cornerstone of democracy and human rights," said Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne. "Canada will co-host the second Global Conference for Media Freedom along with Botswana. We very much look forward to continuing our important work."
Botswana, however, has a troubling record when it comes to freedom of the press, and has received criticism from various human rights organizations.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), a South Africa-based NGO dedicated to promoting freedom of the press, has noted that "the reputation Botswana has been graced with, does not match reality and the transgressions against media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information."
MISA's 2017 report on media freedom in Botswana noted a number of situations where individuals were targeted by the government for expressing oppositional views through media outlets.
In 2012, a public school teacher was fired from his job after publishing an opinion piece in support of striking public sector employees. Two radio broadcasters were also fired from their positions "under duress from the Botswana Democratic Party government" after they leaked a recorded conversation whereby government officials discussed bribing oppositional figures to switch sides.
In September of 2014, an editor for a local newspaper named Outsa Mokone was arrested for publishing an article the previous month where he claimed that the President of Botswana was involved in a car crash. Mokone was restricted from accessing his lawyers and the courts refused to consider whether the law he was being tried under was constitutional. The author of the story, Edgar Tsimane, remains in exile in South Africa.
MISA also describes a situation where three journalists were arbitrarily detained for reporting on Botswana's president using government funds to renovate his home. According to the report, "the journalists’ phones were confiscated. And the security agents also searched and seized the journalists’ equipment, including cameras."
The journalists were further instructed to never return to the president's estate, with intelligence operatives telling them “we will not negotiate; we will shoot you on sight” if they return.
Amnesty International has also criticized Botswana's press freedom record, pointing to the case of Tsaone Basimanebotlhe, a journalist who's home was raided by police and saw his phone and computer confiscated after reporting on an "ongoing case involving former spy chief Isaac Kgosi in which it is alleged that Kgosi shared pictures of [Directorate of Security Services] agents with [his] publication."
More recently, the Botswana government has faced criticism for its employment of censorship in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A spokesman for the ruling party said “it has become necessary to curtail some rights to prevent the spread of the virus." Under new emergency powers granted to handle the pandemic, journalists could see themselves jailed for up to five years for publishing information with “the intention to deceive” the public about coronavirus.
Meanwhile, a police paper promoted on the Canadian government's website in regard to the conference discusses how "the spread of the virus prompted numerous governments in both democracies and authoritarian regimes to clamp down on the media to control the information and public narrative about the pandemic, sparking concerns about press freedom." The paper discusses examples from a number of countries, including Botswana's neighbour Zimbabwe, but does not directly address the emergency laws put in place in the co-hosting nation.
Another policy paper discussing "systemic racism" in media criticizes the American response to the protests which erupted following the killing of George Floyd. The report also laments the lack of diversity in newsrooms and corporate media boardrooms, particularly in Canada, using data which the report describes as "outdated."
At last year's conference on media freedom, True North reported that then-Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appeared alongside Malaysian politician Gobind Singh Deo, who has advocated laws against "hate speech" and for the prosecution of bloggers both inside and outside of Malaysia's borders for "inflammatory remarks."
"Freedom of expression does not mean (freedom) to promote lewd, vulgar or sexist comments," argued Deo.
Deo served as Minister of Communications and Media under former Prime Minister Matathir Mohamad. Despite Deo's concerns over hate speech, Prime Minister Mohamad has described himself as a proud anti-Semite, referred to Jews as "hooked-nose," and claimed that Jews run the world. Last month he claimed in a tweet that Muslims have the right "to kill millions of French people" over historic grievances.