Newly appointed national director of Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Tefo Phatshwane has much work to do before the end of his 3-year contract.
The 35-year-old takes over a broke organisation, which has frequently teetered on the brink of closure due to lack of funds.
However, alongside legal brains, Mboki Chilisa, who is MISA’s chairperson, Phatshwane is confident he can revive the institute and turn it into the vibrant force it once was.
Q. We know you as the billboard guy, why the MISA move?
A. I run a digital billboard company, Ideal Deal, but I have worked in the media industry before, albeit in the business side, that is Sales, for about six years.
I started at Yarona FM, then moved to Duma FM and then to Echo newspaper as Sales Manager.
Before that, while I was still an undergraduate at the University of Botswana, I freelanced for Echo newspaper, writing mostly on university-based news for the student section.
Q. So you understand the media industry pretty well?
A. I understand it very well: the deadlines, sales, targets and hardships in terms of news gathering.
Why MISA? It is because over the years I have developed love to advocate for the right things.
When I was still at BITC, which was my last employment, I was elected to chair a staff team during a restructuring exercise – so I have always been a proponent of good governance and proponent of good employee/employer relations, staff welfare per se.
With MISA there are a lot of things that need advocacy, from media houses to welfare of media practitioners – so it is one of my first issues to attack and call for freedom of information.
Q. MISA is a shadow of the force it once was. Indeed, many regard it as virtually non-existent, what went wrong?
A. MISA has not been very active, as you know. The reason why that has not been happening is because of lack of funds. Some of these things you need funds to get going.
Secondly, there was no director at MISA for a long time. I took over this month.
There was somebody who was there but was on his way out (interim), so there was nobody in the ground to lobby for such.
That’s when I came on board and we have met with my board and discussed my vision and the engagement of government.
Q. Do you think people still take MISA seriously?
A. They think MISA is dead and I would agree to some extent that it hasn’t been visible, mainly because the funds ran out and there were no people on the ground to run with the organisation – that is how it lost its relevance.
The reason I opted to join is because it is something that is close to me; media is close to my heart and I believe I can get it back to where it used to be.
We used to have annual MISA Awards, so those things are coming back next year.
That is what I am looking on.
Q. That’s encouraging…
A. Yes, they will be back.
I am talking to stakeholders to make sure that they come back and many other activities, such as national debates on pertinent issues about the media and democracy and the rule of law.
Q. What will the role of MISA be during this current election season?
A. As an advocacy organisation, our role will be to make sure that media houses are accorded the right to report without intimidation.
We strive to see our media being free, not captured.
We want them to report factual stories, well researched, not fake news.
That is what I wish for, for the media to raise the bar. Coverage for next year’s general elections has to be fair and not bought!
Q. How would you rate the level of freedom the media operate under in Botswana?
A. To some extent it is okay. Media houses are able to report what they like, but there are instances where there are challenges.
For the past ten years or so, our media has been harassed, as you know. Journalists have been taken to court.
There were charges of sedition, which is unheard of in a democracy. Such things shouldn’t be happening at all!
I believe with the new regime, with Rre Masisi, things are coming out better.
He is engaging the media more. For the first time, we see the President hosting press conferences frequently.
Ministers are also holding press conferences frequently, so there is flow of information to the media, especially private media, but it is not enough.
As long as we do not have the Freedom of Information Bill, journalists are still denied access to public files, hence they speculate and end up in trouble.
But I still say we are not bad as compared to other African countries.
However, as an old democracy, I would say we have been overtaken by new democratic countries, such as Namibia and South Africa, while we are stagnant.
Q. So you are all about fairness?
A. We don’t only advocate for MISA against certain forces, but for media houses to be fair and act according to media principles.
Q. You seem to have high hopes for President Masisi’s regime. Do you believe in him that much?
A. Because he just got in, I will give him the benefit of the doubt!
I am happy with the new relations that are developing, which is positive for the media.
Time will tell if the media will be harassed again.
He’s made certain developments, very good ones! He nullified Outsa Mokone’s charge (Editor, sedition charge).
I hear Bay Tsimane (Journalist, who fled Botswana after alleged intimidation by intelligence officers) is back in the country, Joe Salbany (Lawyer, declared prohibited immigrant last year) is also back in the country, so he has made good, brave and bold announcements.
I would encourage media houses to work with him. He says he is open, if they need anything they can go back to him.
But the bottom line is, if the Freedom of Information Bill is still not in place we remain in the same place.
Talk is cheap and these are politicians, they want mileage, calling press conferences and all the like could be just a campaign strategy so that every week the President is in newspapers ahead of elections.
Let’s judge the man after elections!
Q. The ban on government advertising in private media is still in place under Masisi’s leadership – what is your take on that one?
A. It was a strategy from the previous regime to bottle down and squeeze media because we know media houses survive on advertising world over.
Thus if you cut down advertising budgets, that means you cut resources, you can’t do better investigations, you can’t travel, you can’t do a lot of things because there is no money.
Salaries have to be low, stagnant, and when salaries are low you are prone to lose quality journalists – they look for jobs in the private sector because they have families to feed.
In a way, you are killing the boldness of the media.
Q. What is your view on the recent law passed by Parliament to regulate social media?
A. I think it is double standard from the government’s part.
Social media gives the people the right to write whatever they like and people are spontaneously reporting on anything, so they wanted to control that because they realised they don’t have the power over citizen reporting.
Why pass that law in such a hurry and not the Freedom of Information Bill? It is not fair.
I believe in the freedom of expression as allowed for by the constitution.
Q. Congratulations again on your new appointment. Is MISA paying you well?
A. It is not! There is no money basically.
It is volunteer work and something that I want to do, so it is more like community service because there are no resources – indeed most of the time I use my own resources to do official duties.
My other mandate is to find sustainable ways in running MISA in terms of cash generation.
My plan will take 2-3 years to implement and take MISA where I think it should be.
After that I think I will be able to hand over to somebody who can take over or continue if the board wants me to stay on.
I can continue for one more term.
I don’t believe in staying for far too long.
Q. Are you a family man?
A. Yeah, I am. I have two beautiful girls, Rethabile and Rorisang, an eight-year-old and a two-and-a-half year-old – but I am still single.
Q. Thank God it’s Friday, what are you up to this weekend?
A. I normally hang around with my friends; we debate on different issues, politics, this and that.
Most of the time I spend time with my kids, I take them on weekends.