The image of Botswana as a bastion of press freedom and good governance has been dented following the arrest of an editor of a privately owned newspaper, and the seizure of his computer.
A tweet from a reporter in Botswana on Tuesday morning alerted the Committee to Protect Journalists to the arrest: “Editor Outsa Mokone arrested and veteran reporter Edgar Tsimane flees Botswana says he fears for his life!”
The local press reported that police had arrested Sunday Standard editor Mokone on Monday when he could not account for the whereabouts of Tsimane, who had written a story two weeks ago claiming that Botswana President Ian Khama was involved in an unreported traffic accident. Although news reports said Tsimane’s whereabouts were not known, Victor Baatweng, a financial reporter who works atThe Telegraph, a sister publication to the Sunday Standard, told CPJ that Tsimane had applied for, and received, asylum from neighboring South Africa.
According to Baatweng, Tsimane applied for asylum after being warned by his brother, who works for Botswana’s intelligence unit, that his reporting was putting his life, and that of his family, in danger.
“CPJ is disturbed by the arrest and harassment of Outsa Mokone and urges authorities to allow Mokone and all journalists in Botswana to work freely and unfettered,” CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine said. “These events tarnish Botswana’s reputation for good governance and media freedom in southern Africa. It can be restored by allowing a free flow of news and opinion.”
Police released Mokone on Tuesday after holding him for 24 hours. Speaking to CPJ from the capital, Gaborone, Mokone said he would challenge the constitutionality of the charge of sedition, cited on the arrest warrant. The “status hearing” to assess the case in Botswana’s High Court has been set for November 28.
Mokone said he believed an article about alleged corruption in Botswana’s national intelligence agency, the Directorate on Intelligence and Security Services, which his newspaper worked on several months ago, was the reason for his arrest. TheSunday Standard was involved in a court battle with the government over documents it had published relating to the investigation according to news reports. In a case that came before the courts in July, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime had asked for an interdict to prevent the newspaper from publishing parts of its investigation.
“I suspect this was an excuse to raid our offices and check our sources,” Mokone said. “The police seized only my computer, they didn’t take Tsimane’s. They want to scare us until the elections and see what information is being leaked from within government.” Botswana is due to go to the polls on October 24, when President Khama, whose Botswana Democratic Party has governed since independence in 1965, will seek a second term.
Mokone’s lawyer Dick Bayford said that his client had not been charged with sedition, but that the sedition law was the pretext on which the police had applied for the arrest warrant. He said sedition was a broadly defined offence in Botswana’s penal code, and its application had “a chilling effect” on the media. “There is no place for a law like this in a democratic country,” he added.
Bayford said that media freedom had shrunk under the government of President Khama. He told CPJ that at the beginning of 2014 the president described the Botswana media as “unruly” and had announced that the government would sponsor the legal costs of any civil servant who felt aggrieved and might want to take action against the press. “As a result, public attitude to the press has hardened,” Bayford added.