October 26, 2006

Minorities defend their right to organise / Concerns over attempts to "muzzle" state media

Botswana's indigenous minorities have expressed concern over President Festus Mogae's recent call to avoid joining organised ethnic cultural groups. In an address marking the country's 40 years of independence, Mogae said he was worried about the growing trend by some citizen groups, who claimed that their languages and cultures were being marginalised, to organise themselves into ethnic cultural groups. "While it is perfectly legitimate for tribes to promote their individual cultures, we should avoid setting up exclusive organisations whose membership is drawn from one tribe ... Our goal of nation-building needs to prevail over narrow tribal sentiment", Mogae said. Jumanda Gakelebone, a spokesman for First People of the Kalahari, a local pressure group, however said that the marginalised ethnic communities had formed groups to stop their assimilation into the eight Tswana tribes recognised by the constitution.
The Batswana form the majority of Botswana's population, with the Kalanga, Basarwa, and Kgalagadi constituting four percent, mainly in northern and central Botswana, but the languages of the San, the Kgalagadi and the Kalanga are not used on national radio or taught at any level in local schools.
Reteng, a coalition of ethnic cultural groups, said it was "regrettable" that the government continued to view the activities of marginalised ethnic groups with suspicion. The formation of cultural groups should be acceptable in a democracy, it added. "The cultural societies are open to anyone who wants to join, but they will always attract those people who belong to that particular culture and have a passion to preserve its language and traditions", Reteng said in a statement in response to Mogae's remarks. "The government should view the formation of such cultural groups as a sign that something is terribly wrong with our national language and culture system. The minorities are simply refusing to accept the notion of cultural inferiority. We are refusing to be assimilated into language and culture systems that are not ours. We all cherish a united and culturally diversified Botswana, but the government should stop perpetuating colonialist mindsets in which some tribes are considered inferior to others", Gakelebone said. Presidential spokesman Jeff Ramsay said the president's speech was not a directive against any ethnic groups, but a mere expression of concern over the proliferation of exclusive formations.
In the meantime, Media watchdogs have criticised attempts by the Botswana government to control state media coverage of a controversial programme to relocate the San community from their ancestral land in a game reserve. Andrew Sesinyi, deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology, had urged public media editors in a recent memo to ensure that all negative reports on the relocation programme produced by the independent media were "contrasted strongly with freshly sought government statements". He also directed the public media to consider the memo "both as an instruction and as a guideline" on covering issues related to the CKGR. Sesinyi told public media practitioners that "it is a worldwide practice that professional journalists are patriots first and foremost, before anything else". Without mentioning names, the directive also told government media practitioners that journalists in the privately owned media were unpatriotic and were "rallying behind the enemy" in their reporting on the CKGR issue.
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders described the memo as "archaic", "risky" and "unusual" for Botswana, and said although the country did not have laws that threatened media freedom, the government should "resist the temptation to try to regiment" the media. Reporters Without Borders said it was hard to understand how a senior official who "insults" the privately owned press and tells the public media what to do could dismiss the idea that he was attacking press freedom.
Botswana's media landscape is dominated by the public media, especially Botswana TV and Radio Botswana. The privately owned media - consisting of two radio stations, a dozen or so weeklies and monthlies, and a daily that only reaches urban areas - have little national impact, the media watchdog said. (IRIN)

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