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Freelance Gaborone journalist recounts his time in prison; African journalists and Panama Papers

By Laura Angela Bagnetto

In this week’s African Media, we look at how African journalists worked on the Panama Papers; and we hear about one journalist's prison experience in Botswana. Being thrown in prison became a "blessing in disguise" for Sonny Serite, a freelance investigative journalist in Gaborone, Botswana, arrested for almost receiving classified government documents. RFI talks to Serite about his experience and why the President Ian Khama government does not support freedom of speech.

Why were you arrested?

I was arrested on suspicion—I was going to receive a confidential file from the office of the president. It was suspicious that someone waiting in the office of the president was going to give me a file—that was why I was arrested.

That was the official reason, but you have written a number of articles criticizing President Ian Khama’s government. Do you think that came into play? Did you know the person who was giving you this file?

First of all, let me start by admitting that there is a hostile relationship between the government and the private media. There is no cordial relationship. Yes, I’ve been writing a lot of articles about the presidency and the ruling government. So, I don’t know what led to their suspicions that this guy was going to give me this file. And I must say that this guy has been my personal friend since 1997. He’s not just an employee in the office of the president, he was, he is my personal friend first and employee of the office of the president second.

There has been some speculation in the media that part of this issue is because of some articles you wrote about Transnet,[ a South African company and Botswana Railways who reportedly violated procurement regulations when signing the deal]?

Yes, because on the same week that I was arrested, actually a day before I was arrested, I did an investigative report exposing the alleged corruption between Transnet and Botswana Railways. It had acquired some coaches and locomotives from the Transnet, a South African company, and there were some alleged corrupt practices in the acquisition of these coaches. So I had exposed some of the deal.

You were arrested, about to receive these documents but you don’t know what was in them, and you were taken to prison. You wrote about this for the Sunday Standard in Botswana. It’s a pretty harrowing description of your days in prison. Can you give insight into how that was?

It was bad, it was bad. If you look in that article, I explained that the holding capacity of that prison is 170, but it has 421 inmates as we speak. So that’s more than double the holding capacity. You can imagine the hygiene—it’s despicable. The sleeping space is very small to accommodate a lot of people there. So, it’s not a nice place to be, I want to tell you the truth.

It’s quite interesting that you actually could—as a journalist would—pick out some of the people who had been on trial previously and were doing major time for heinous crimes.

Exactly—it’s dangerous. As you can imagine, I was remanded; you know, I haven’t been convicted of anything, but I was there with some people who are serving 60 years in prison. First, people can be dangerous, because they have nothing to lose. They can just fight with anyone. There’s some people there who have given up on life, so for you to be mingling with such people is a very dangerous situation.

Have you ever been to prison?

This was my first time in prison. I’m a law-abiding citizen.

You’ve described this in such detail and you’ve also talked about this on social media. It sounds like you have, perhaps, a new investigative piece that will be coming out.

Oh yes, yes. In a way, going there was a blessing in disguise. Because as a journalist, the good thing about journalism is that you take your work with you wherever you go. So, if they were locking me in to stop me from writing what was in that file from the office of the president, I went in there, I met people who gave me different information that is worth writing about. And I’ll be writing about it very soon.

So you said previously that the relationship between the private media in Botswana and the government’s office and with President Ian Khama is not a great one. Has this degenerated since he came into office, or has this always been the case in Botswana?

I’m sorry to say it only started with him. I’ll give you an example. President Ian Khama has been at the helm since 2008. He has never held a press conference or press briefing with the private media, not even once, since 2008. So you can imagine. There are so many issues that the private media want to engage him on, but he has always made it clear [by saying], “No, I have no business talking to the private media.” He’d rather give the state media private interviews but not the private media. So you can imagine there must be something wrong with the working relationship between the two.

Why is this the case? Did something happen early on in his campaign before he came to power?

I think the problem is here: the private media is doing what it has been doing all along with the previous president. But now what came to light since President Ian Khama came on board is that he doesn’t tolerate dissent, he doesn’t tolerate what may be perceived as negative reporting. If you say, “There’s something bad going on here,” he thinks you are attacking him, or you are attacking his government. That is the problem. The media is not supposed to write anything negative. In as far as he’s concerned, if you write something negative, then in his own words, he says, “Private media are unpatriotic, in that they let the whole world know what is happening in Botswana.”

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