Gaborone, Botswana - The arrest and brief detention of a top newspaper editor in Botswana is raising concern among journalists used to plying their trade without interference from the government.
Outsa Mokone, who edits the Sunday Standard, was arrested on September 8 as part of what he calls a government campaign to intimidate the media into submission in the run-up to general elections scheduled for October 24.
The warrant for Mokone's arrest, issued by the Chief Magistrate for Gaborone Administrative District on September 2, relates to a possible charge of "seditious intention", which contravenes the Penal Code in the southern African nation, which has hitherto enjoyed a reputation for being a functioning democracy with unfettered press freedom.
After Mokone's arrest and subsequent detention at Broadhurst police station, Sunday Standard lawyers issued an urgent petition to the Gaborone High Court, prompting Judge Modiri Letsididi to order the editor's release.
Live Box 201482813039822244
Letsididi further ordered the Commissioner of Police, represented in the case by the deputy Attorney General of Botswana, Nchunga Nchunga, to not "execute and implement the warrant of arrest" and "not apply for any further warrants of arrest against" the editor.
Mokone told Al Jazeera that while the Sunday Standard had run a number of stories on corruption in the country’s intelligence agency, he believes the story the paper published about a car crash involving Botswana's president, Ian Khama, led to his arrest.
The story, which said Khama was driving alone at night, was written by a senior journalist, Edgar Tsimane, who has since fled Botswana and is seeking temporary asylum in neighbouring South Africa, following a tip-off that his life was in danger.
Sunday Standard's lawyer Dick Bayford confirmed that Tsimane was in South Africa and had been accredited to continue his journalistic work and was on duty by Thursday covering the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee athlete who was convicted on September 12 of culpable homicide after fatally shooting his girlfriend in February 2013.
Seizure of computer
A day after Mokone's arrest, work at the complex where the Sunday Standard is housed in the capital Gaborone came to a standstill. Mokone arrived in the company of plainclothes police, who seized documents and equipment.
Al Jazeera found Mokone seated in his office while the four police officers browsed through printed materials, including his personal computer and desk. For almost two hours, the officers continued searching and eventually emerged carrying Mokone's computer, three white envelopes and computer disks.
"I cannot do anything to them. I cannot stop them from seizing the material and computers as they are protected by the law and I am not," Mokone told Al Jazeera before he was pulled towards the car by the state security agents as they drove away with him.
The media, especially the Sunday Standard, has been very instrumental in exposing the government corrupt practices.
Mokone says he is convinced that the Botswana government thinks the crackdown will have a chilling effect on free press in the country ahead of the elections in six weeks.
"About two months ago, the government issued a warrant for my arrest together with my deputy, Spencer Mogapi, and our lawyer Dick Bayford. The warrant, however, was not put into force," he said.
"Sunday Standard is committed to its role as a watchdog. I told reporters and well-wishers outside court that I would happily spend another hundred years in their prison than spend one day as a prisoner of [this] chilling effect."
Botswana journalists fear that the editor's arrest may be the beginning of a wider clampdown on the independent media.
Tefo Pheage, a journalist with the Weekendpost, a weekly newspaper, said the Botswana government is going against its promise of a clean government which respects civil liberties, including freedom of the press.
"The government has previously boasted of being among few countries which abhors harassment of journalists in an effort to gag them," he told Al Jazeera.
Another local journalist, Thobo Mothoka of the Telegraph newspaper, said that the arrest of Mokone was just one of the many attempts by the government to silence dissenting views and intimidate those seen as obstacles to the ruling party's attempts to hold on to power.
"The media, especially the Sunday Standard, has been very instrumental in exposing government's corrupt practices," Mothoka said, adding that the new coalition of opposition parties, the Umbrella for Democratic Change, and the recent mysterious death of their vice presidential candidate has swayed public support away from the ruling party. This, he said, has set the leadership onto panic mode.
The arrest has also led to condemnation of the state security agents' raid of the newsroom as well as continued rebuttals by the government of stories done by private media outlets.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa said it was gravely concerned about the attempt by the Botswana government to intimidate and impede the work of the press, particularly as another journalist working for the Sunday Standard, Tsimane, has also been threatened by the state in connection with an article he wrote.
"It is important to note [that] this is probably the first time Botswana's sedition laws have been used against a journalist. MISA Botswana has stated in the past that we classify sedition and other laws criminalising journalists' work as an impediment to the operation of a free media in a democracy.” the regional media advocacy group said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the United States also said it was deeply concerned by the arrest of Mokone.
Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson at the State Department in Washington DC, said that the US strongly values freedom of the press, which is a key component of democratic governance.
"Freedom of expression and media freedom, which foster the exchange of ideas and facilitate transparency and accountability, are essential components for democracy. Outsa Mokone’s arrest is inconsistent with these fundamental freedoms and at odds with Botswana’s strong tradition of democratic governance," Harf said.
However, Botswana has responded angrily, telling the US that "it might wish to put its own house in order before rushing to hastily comment on the judicial affairs of others".
Mokone is expected to appear at the Gaborone High Court in late November, where his lawyers will also challenge the law under which he is being charged.
Source: Al Jazeera