The Lobatse high court will soon hear a bizarre seditioncase against a prominent Botswana newspaper editor, which is damaging thecountry’s standing as a bastion of democracy and media freedom in Africa.
Sunday Standardeditor Outsa Mokone will stand trial on June 8 before Judge Jennifer Dube oncharges under sections 50 and 51 of Botswana’s Penal Code, which outlaw any“intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection againstthe person of the president or the government of Botswana as established bylaw”.
Mokone’s transgression was to publish a report about a caraccident involving President Ian Khama, who was driving alone through Gaboroneat night and failed to report the incident.
The reporter, Edgar Tsimane, has skipped the country,claiming his life has been threatened, and is in exile in Pretoria. He, too,faces a possible sedition charge and believes it is not safe for him to gohome.
This is the first time a Botswana journalist has beencharged with sedition, which lawyers say carries a maximum three-year jailsentence.
The case has fuelled the country’s decline in world pressfreedom and governance rankings. Botswana ranks as partially free, according toFreedom House, which is a significant drop compared to its previous position.
The journalist’s arrest is “at odds withBotswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance”.
Reacting to the news, the United States state departmentsaid it was deeply concerned about Mokone’s arrest, as it was inconsistent withthe fundamental freedoms of expression and the press, and “at odds withBotswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance”.
The Sunday Standardstory appeared on the front page on September 1 2014, and was headlined“President hit in car accident while driving alone at night”.
Tsimane obtained his information from staff members atGaborone’s Montana Lodge, where the other party to the accident, a Zambiannational, Mabita Kaunda, was staying on the night of the accident, on SaturdayAugust 23.
Kaunda, said to be a regular at the lodge, was notinterviewed directly by Tsimane and subsequent efforts to trace him wereunsuccessful.
According to an employee at the lodge, Kaunda was visiblyshaken when he came into the hotel and told them that, at 10pm, he hadrear-ended a black Range Rover driven by Khama. He allegedly said that hisvehicle, a Jeep, was removed by the presidential guard, who then drove him tothe lodge.
The president is known to use a black Range Rover forprivate purposes.
Although Kaunda had minor head and neck injuries, accordingto hotel staff, he had agreed with one of Khama’s aides that he would not seekhospital treatment. Staff said they gave him painkillers.
Kaunda had minor head and neck injuries [but], according to hotel staff, agreed with one of Khama’s aides that he would not seekhospital treatment.
They also said the Zambian left the next day, claiming tohave been given a replacement Jeep by the presidential guard, who kept hisvehicle. Tsimane said he was unable to establish why or whether this was done.
Police told the SundayStandard that no one had reported the alleged accident.
Tsimane said in his article that, “in an apparent bid toconceal the accident, the president violated the country’s road traffic lawsand failed to report the accident within the prescribed 48 hours”.
He insists that his sources were credible. “They areordinary people who could not be suspected of harbouring any motives againstthe president.
“Even when they were questioned by our lawyers to establishthe veracity of the story, they were consistent in recounting what happened.”
Shortly after publication, Mokone received a threateningletter from the attorney general, Athaliah Molokomme, which seemed related toan entirely different incident, involving different vehicles in a differentplace and at a different time.
Molokomme’s letter referred to a car crash that took placeon the morning of August 23 in the village of Dibete, 120km north of Gaborone.
It said: “On Saturday 23rd August 2014, at about 09:00, acollision took place between a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUV and a private FordRanger on the A1 road at Dibete.
“His excellency the president was neither the driver of nora passenger in either vehicle.”
Molokomme denied anyone was injured in the accident, addingthat “no compensation or new vehicle has been given or offered to the driver orowner of the Jeep”.
The Jeep driver — another discrepancy from the earlierreference to “a Ford Ranger, not a Jeep” — “was not taken to any location bythe presidential guard”, she added.
She said her office “has taken a very serious view of thismatter, which suggests that head of state has undermined his oath of officeunder the Botswana Constitution, in which he undertook to faithfully anddiligently discharge his duties and perform his functions in the high office ofpresident of the Republic of Botswana.”
She demanded that Mokone provide a written explanation forhis conduct by midday Wednesday September 3 and the publication of a fullretraction in the Sunday Standard. Herefused to do both.
There has been much speculation over why the news report sparked such a fierce reaction.
The sedition charge that followed surprised many people, whosuspect that Khama is behind it. There has been much speculation over why thenews report sparked such a fierce reaction.
The chairperson of the Law Society of Botswana, LawrenceLecha, said, for the offence under section 50(1) to be established prima facie,the prosecution had to show that the article incited “hatred or contempt”against Khama.
Lecha said the society “cannot believe” that the articlecould cause “the eventualities contemplated by section 50 (1) of the PenalCode. The issue was not whether the article or parts of it were true or false,but “whether the facts and circumstances can sustain a charge of sedition”.
Tsimane is in South Africa on a three-month permit, althoughhe has applied for political asylum. He insists he is not afraid of facing thelaw but he was advised to skip the country by a close contact in theintelligence service.
“I received intelligence that, if I really valued my life, Ishould seek sanctuary beyond Botswana’s borders,” he said.