UMass Amherst Journalism Professor Howard Ziff Consults on Botswana Program

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts professor Howard M. Ziff has influenced the lives of journalism students for decades. Now his views on teaching journalism and how news media markets develop are getting a hearing in the Republic of Botswana in central, southern Africa.

Ziff recently returned from a four-month stay at the University of Botswana, in the capital city of Gaborone, where he advised officials about setting up a school of journalism. The trip was sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists. Ziff produced a five-year plan that calls for starting a journalism program at the University of Botswana that offers two majors: one in standard news, the other, in public information. The plan is now under review by officials at the university.

Botswana, a landlocked nation slightly smaller than Texas, is a stable parliamentary democracy with a free press, by African standards. "This was the first time I have ever set foot in Africa and it was a new experience," Ziff said. "The society is different from what I’m used to. It’s a very staid, dignified culture, not at all an in-your-face culture like America." He said students at the university are older than typical students here, and have had both a longer secondary education and have done national service before beginning their studies. Overall, both the educational system and society are marked by subtlety, grace, and the reserved nature of the people, he found.

Botswana contains the Kalahari Desert in its southwestern region and is surrounded by Namibia on the west and northwest, South Africa on the south and southeast, and Zimbabwe on the northeast. It is a developing country that currently lacks private radio stations, has virtually no television stations, and has just a few newspapers, and magazines. With a rising literacy rate, stable political system, and a growing economy, Botswana is ready to enter the modern media age, Ziff said. The new journalism program can play a critical role in how the future in that region of Africa unfolds. "They would make a wonderful model and are looked to by other African states," Ziff said.

An area of concern, however, Ziff said, is that the government of Botswana currently has no overall communications policies in place, so the country lacks licensing and regulatory structures needed to guide the development of homegrown news media outlets. And because its powerful and wealthy neighbor, South Africa, is already moving ahead with the development of radio and television that can easily be beamed across national borders,*Botswana has to act quickly to make sure it isn’t left behind, Ziff said.

In addition, Ziff said, Botswana has a need for trained public information officials to help the government communicate with its citizens. That’s why he suggested the dual major for the journalism program.

"This experience gave me a deeper appreciation for careful, deliberate planning," Ziff said. "With the Internet and television coming, some kind of structure has to be put in place to help the country grow."

Ziff said Botswana is a relatively wealthy nation of about 1.4 million people that exports diamonds but has an economy historically based on raising cattle and crops. Botswana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966. During colonial rule it was known as Bechuanaland.