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Would you believe it?

Accuracy as an
ethical concern in the
Botswana private press

By Richard Rooney

A paper presented at a research seminar at the University of


Botswana, 23 October 2015

Would you believe it? Accuracy as an ethical concern in the Botswana private press
By Richard Rooney

Abstract
This paper investigates the extent to which inaccurate reporting occurs in Botswana, what
are its main causes and how journalists in Botswana might improve standards of accuracy.
It begins with a brief overview of the private press landscape in Botswana, before
considering why it is important for journalists to behave ethically and the important role they
play in enhancing a democratic society.
The paper then considers the main causes of inaccurate reporting and examines how
journalists within Botswana have attempted to raise their ethical standards. In particular the
relevant articles in the Botswana Press Council Code of Ethics are interrogated.
Finally, the paper surveys suggestions gathered regionally and globally on how media
practitioners might improve standards of accuracy.

Key words: accuracy, ethics, journalism, newspapers, Botswana,

Introduction
Factualness, accuracy and completeness are the three most essential aspects of information
quality in news Accuracy and completeness can only be investigated in news texts once basic
facts have been identified. Completeness is usually thought to be a precondition of proper
understanding of news, and the media promises completeness in the sense of a full range of
information about significant events of the day (McQuail, 1994, p.205; p.210).
This paper investigates the extent to which inaccurate reporting occurs in Botswana. It
answers three questions.
1. To what extent does inaccurate reporting occur in Botswana?
2. What are the main causes of inaccurate reporting?
3. How might journalists in Botswana improve standards of accuracy?
This paper begins by offering a brief overview of the private press landscape in Botswana,
before setting the limits to the research and identifying the impossibility of undertaking a
quantitative analysis of inaccuracy
It then considers why it is important for journalists to behave ethically and the important role
they play in enhancing a democratic society.

The paper then considers the main causes of inaccurate reporting. To do this it uses as
secondary sources three workshops conducted with media practitioners and published as the
African Media Barometer - Botswana series (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2009; Friedrich-EbertStiftung, 2011; Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2014).
The paper then examines how journalists within Botswana have attempted to raise their
ethical standards. In particular the relevant articles in the Press Council of Botswana (PCB)
Code of Ethics are interrogated (Botswana Press Council, n.d.).
The paper has a concluding section that first interrogates the work of Maier (2005) on news
reporting accuracy that identifies seven main reasons why errors occur. Then it surveys
suggestions gathered regionally and globally on how media practitioners might improve
standards of accuracy.

Media landscape in Botswana

In terms of numbers of titles published, it could be said that Botswana has a thriving private
newspaper sector with at least 15 titles available. Circulation figures for most newspapers are
not publicly available so it is impossible to accurately assess how well they do in the
marketplace. However, simple observation would suggest that many are struggling as
commercial entities, with small numbers of pages per issue and little advertising. Most
newspaper titles publish weekly; the exception is Mmegi that publishes four times a week
(Tuesday to Friday). Its companion the Monitor publishes on Monday.
Newspaper titles in Botswana come and go. A study in 2012 (Rooney 2012) determined there
were 15 private newspaper titles. Since that date two titles have closed down and another now
publishes exclusively online. Meanwhile at least three new weekly newspapers have
launched.
In this present study the state-owned and controlled Daily News has been excluded, since it is
not a privately-owned newspaper. The News publishes daily Monday to Friday and is said to
have a print run of 65,000 copies per day (Fombad, 2011, p.20, cited in Rooney 2012)
making it by far the largest circulating newspaper in Botswana. The next highest is thought to
be the Voice with a circulation verified by the Audit Bureau of circulation in 2011 to be
26,794 (Rooney 2012).

Quantifying inaccurate reporting in Botswana


The paper recognises the difficulty in identifying inaccurate reporting. Unless readers have
been personally involved in the circumstances of the news item, or have some personal or
expert knowledge of the subject covered, they would not be able to gauge its level of
accuracy.
The only way for a reader to be certain that an inaccuracy had occurred would be if the
newspaper publicly acknowledged such.

An inaccuracy would be said to be publicly acknowledged when a newspaper published an


item clearly stating it had made a mistake (see for example Matter of Fact, Midweek Sun, 6
May 2015, p.4). These items might be only a correction of facts, or they might include a
formal apology to those who have been misrepresented (see for example Apology, Echo, 27
February 2014, p.12).
In addition, an inaccuracy might be alleged to have taken place when an aggrieved person or
organisation writes a letter of complaint or sends a press release that is then published by the
newspaper (see for example US Embassy Press Release, Sunday Standard, 18 May 2014).
The allegation of inaccuracy might also take the form of a paid advertisement from an
interested party commenting on a news item that did not directly relate to itself. An example
of this was an advertisement written and paid for by the BOPEU trade union published in a
number of newspapers referring to an alleged inaccuracy in the Sunday Patriot newspaper
about Independence Day not being a paid holiday (see for example Mmegi, 26 September
2014, p.16).
In the cases of letters, press releases and paid advertisements, it is not necessarily the case
that the newspaper formally acknowledges any wrong-doing.
This research did not attempt to quantify how many times inaccuracies were acknowledged
since such action is entirely at the discretion of the newspaper and it is possible that some
newspaper titles are more willing to publicly acknowledge its mistakes than others.
One additional source of alleged inaccuracy in reporting used in this research paper was the
PCB which allows readers to complain to it about instances of alleged inaccuracies (among
other ethical considerations).

Why ethics are important in mass news media

The mass news media have an important role in modern democratic society as the main
source of information for people and the basis on which they form their opinions and decide
on actions (Jones and Holmes, 2011, pp.182-183). Any selection of messages in the mass
media can have a profound effect on the entire society (McNair, 1998, p.35).
News media have a democratic duty of acting as a watchdog against government thereby
making it transparent and accountable to the people (Kasoma, 1995, p. 359 cited in Feustel et.
al. n.d. p.14). Ultimately, with credible information provided by a free press, the citizen is
enabled to increase oversight of government activities and therefore enhance his / her
participation in decentralized decision-making (Ningo, 2000, p. 14, cited in Feustel et. al. n.d.
p.14).). A primary instance of this can be seen during elections.
The media have a prime responsibility to examine what government is and is not doing, by
reporting the news, interpreting the news, influencing citizens opinions, setting the agenda
for government action, and socializing citizens about politics and encouraging a political
culture to evolve (Roth 2001, p.10; Ojo 2003, p.828).

A positive causal link from free press to good governance is assumed, with the existence of a
free press seen to be the only guarantee for both the advent and maintenance of genuine
freedom and democratic governance. This view sees free press as able to fulfil the ideal of
promoting and spreading the free exchange of ideas and opinions and is therefore a
prerequisite for democracy (Kasoma, 1995, p. 538 cited by Fuestel et. al. n.d. p.14).
To engage effectively there is an assumption that access to information is the first
requirement for a participative democracy (Roth 2001, p.13). An active citizenry will help
prevent governmental excesses and breed trust in the democratic system, thereby enabling the
private media to perform their functions (Tetty 2003, p.28; Feustel et. al. n.d. p.14)) and the
media are the major mechanisms by which citizens are informed about the world (Sparks,
1993, p.59).
Journalists on newspapers (and also radio and television) have a responsibility to put before
the public information that is accurate and based on truth. Journalists ask their readers to
accept their integrity when writing their news reports.
This trust between journalist and reader breaks down when it is discovered that journalists
have failed to produce accurate reports of the events they cover.

Main causes of inaccurate reporting


Journalists in Botswana face many obstacles in their reporting (Rooney, 2012). Some are due
to a scarcity of resources and some due to deliberate attempts by government officials to
withhold information. Despite these obstacles, private media in Botswana are said to pursue
their oversight function with determination, but it is more difficult for private media
organisations than for government-owned ones to obtain access to government held
information (Freedom House 2011; Motsela 2010).
Media practitioners in Botswana recognise these problems. In 2009, in 2011 and again in
2014, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung sponsored African Media Barometer workshops with media
practitioners in Botswana to collect attitudes on media performance in the country (FriedrichEbert-Stiftung, 2009; Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2011; Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2014).
Participants felt many journalists lacked sufficient knowledge and capacity and made
mistakes as a result, but errors were not a result of malice.
Workshop participants reported that sometimes articles were inaccurate because it was
difficult to get information, and this led to reporters relying on speculation. Each government
ministry has a public information officer, but they tend to block information, rather than
provide access to it. Participants said reporting was generally fair and was not considered to
be gutter journalism although accuracy, fairness and balance were sometimes found to be
lacking. A voluntary media code of ethics for all print media drafted by the self-regulatory
PCB was adopted in 2004 to assist journalists in this regard (Press Council of Botswana,
n.d.).
Media houses in Botswana are generally under-resourced, and privately-owned newspapers
in particular cannot afford to have large staffs or freelancers throughout the country. They
therefore rely on contributors who know that journalists need a constant supply of material to

meet their deadlines and therefore go about supplying it. Political parties in Botswana are
especially aware of these needs (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2011).
The African Media Barometer workshop in 2009 reported that in Botswana, even with a code
of ethical conduct journalists did not follow basic principles. Journalists from both state and
private media tended not to get both sides of the story and misquoting was very common
(Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2009, p.58). The extent of the problem was not fully known
because members of the public did not make formal complaints to the PCB and instead
approached the media house concerned.
The workshop recognised that sometimes reporters were inaccurate as it was difficult to get
information because people did not cooperate. There is also a lack of a formal access to
information law in Botswana so journalist could not demand the information. The lack of
availability of information led to journalists speculating about the truth.
Participants concluded that errors in the Botswana media were not the result of malice and
newspapers in the country were generally quite conservative and were professional
mainstream publications and not sensation-filled tabloids. One reason given for mistakes
taking place was that media houses in Botswana struggled to retain experienced journalists
who could mentor younger journalists. There was also a lack of specialisation in the media as
a result of limited funds and high staff turnover (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2009, p.58).
In the 2014 workshop, panellists said journalists focussed on what they could sell and they
were unwilling to admit when they made mistakes. An inaccurate story will be the main
headline, but the apology for these inaccuracies very rarely appears on the front page
(Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2014, p.52).

The Press Council of Botswana (PCB)

The PCB was established in 2004 as a self-regulatory body to handle complaints from the
public about the media (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2011, p.52). There is a counter statutory
body called the Media Council, established by the Media Practitioners Act in 2008, although
this is not yet operational as the law has yet to be implemented (as of October 2015).
The PCB exists to promote a free, ethical, pluralistic and self-regulating news and
information media, in the areas of print and broadcast journalism. It is there to promote the
observance of media ethics by all media practitioners in accordance with a common code of
practice. Through the Media Code of Ethics of Botswana, the PCB is committed to promoting
public awareness of both the rights and responsibilities of the media, in an effort to balance
freedom of expression with a responsible media (Press Council of Botswana, n.d.).

Codes of Ethics

Codes of conduct are a means by which professional organisations declare the values that
guide their work, determine their social role and determine the professional norms they
consider appropriate (Bertrand 2000, cited in Himelboim and Limos, 2008, p.240).
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Codes exist to articulate the broad normative ideals of the journalism profession and it is
these normative ethics that articulate what people and institutions ought to do or how they
should conduct themselves (Oosthuizen, 2002. P.13).
Journalist codes of ethics seek to achieve several objectives, including enhancing the dignity,
influence and reliability of the relevant professions in the eyes of the public. They also help
to prevent the imposition of external limitations and supervision (such as media laws) on
journalists. The state is prevented from intervening in media activity and content, while
media practitioners impose limitations and restrictions on themselves. The media are often
encouraged to create a code of ethical conduct under threat of legislation (Himelboim and
Limos, 2008, p.240).
In Botswana a code of conduct exists, overseen by the PCB. The Botswana code draws on the
many already operational codes of media ethics that exist elsewhere in the world and would
not seem out of place in many other countries. In a review of codes of journalism codes of
conduct within South Africa, for example, Retief identified common denominators within
these codes of conduct that included articles on accuracy, truthfulness, fairness, impartiality,
confidentiality, conflicts of interest, invasion of privacy, trauma, stereotyping and social
responsibility (Retief, 2002:38-45). All of these characteristics exist in one way or another
within the Botswana code.
There have been several academic studies observing the content of journalism codes of
conduct across the world. They found that there is a near total consensus that the codes
should include norms on accurate, truthful and honest reporting (Himelboim and Limos,
2008, p.242).

The Press Council of Botswana and policing its Code of Conduct

The PCB Code of Ethics has 22 articles divided into five categories: general standards,
general duties of a media practitioner, good practice, rules of the profession and editorial
rules.
The code concerns itself with a number of areas of journalist endeavour which can be broadly
divided into two areas: (i) the personal responsibility of the journalist and (ii) editorial
content.
Two of the codes articles are directly relevant to the present study: Article 2 and Article 5.
Article 2 states. Accuracy
i. When compiling reports, media practitioners must check their facts properly, and
the editors and publishers of newspapers and other media must take proper care not to
publish inaccurate material. Before a media institution publishes a report, the reporter
and the editor must ensure that all reasonable steps have been taken to check its
accuracy. The facts should not be distorted by reporting them out of the context in
which they occurred.

ii. Special care must be taken to check stories that may cause harm to individuals,
organizations or the public interest. Before publishing a story of alleged wrongdoing,
all reasonable steps must be taken to ascertain and include the response from the
individual or organization.
(Botswana Press Council, n.d.)
Article 5 states. Comment, Conjecture and Fact
A media practitioner shall distinguish clearly in his/her publications between
comment, conjecture and fact. The comment must be a genuine expression of opinion
relating to fact. Comment or conjecture must not be presented in such a way as to
create the impression that it is established fact.
(Botswana Press Council, n.d.).

The PCB heard complaints from members of the public from 2006 to 2008. After 2008, with
the passing of the Media Practitioners Act which aimed to introduce a Media Council it
became unclear which of the two bodies would be responsible for hearing complaints. As a
result no formal complaints have been heard since 2008. This is to the possible detriment of
ethical media standards in Botswana because as a result of the lack of official activity it has
been impossible for those working in the news media to develop understandings of how their
own codes might be applied in practice and no public space has been created in which
discussions about the rightness or otherwise of the codes exists.
Table 1 details the number of complaints received and dealt with by the PCB. In three years
of operation a total of 18 complaints were received of which seven were subsequently
withdrawn. Of the 10 cases adjudicated all were upheld, but three were appealed.

Table 1 Complaints to the PCB


Received
4
8
6

2006
2007
2008

withdrawn
2
3
2

adjudicated
2
4
4

upheld
2
4
4

dismissed
0
0
0

appealed
0
1
2

Source PCB annual reports 2006, 2007, 2008 (Press Council of Botswana n.d).

Table 2 presents the complaints broken down by category.

Table 2 Categories of complaints to the PCB


Year

Inaccuracy
/ incorrect

Sensitivity

Defamation

Imbalance

Invasion
of privacy

Misleading

2006
2007
2008
Total

1
4
1
6

2
0
0
2

1
3
1
4

0
2
3
5

0
1
0
1

0
1
0
1

Denied
right of
reply
0
1
0
1

Source PCB annual reports 2006, 2007, 2008 (Press Council of Botswana n.d).
Note some cases involved more than one category.

There is a lack of clarity with these statistics as not all categories have clear definitions nor
do they all relate directly to the PCB code of ethics. In other countries a complainant would
be expected to cite which of the code of ethics they allege has been broken thereby directly
relating the perceived misdeed to the code that the journalists themselves endorsed. The PCB
does not do this. The categories sensitivity and defamation have no direct link with the
code, while inaccurate, incorrect, misleading and imbalance all speak in one way or
another to articles two and five of the code. The category misleading might also belong
here but it is not entirely clear.
It is debatable whether the PCB should be dealing with the category defamation as this is a
legal matter, probably best dealt with by the courts.
With all these caveats in place, we can see from Table 2 that the overwhelming concerns of
complainants to the PCB were about accuracy and imbalance, accounting for 11 complaints
out of the total 18 complaints received in the three years. This concern about accuracy and
fairness was echoed by participants in the African Media Barometer workshop who reported
accuracy, fairness and balance were sometimes found to be lacking (Friedrich-EbertStiftung, 2011, p.53).

Why errors are made

An academic study into the relationship between media accuracy and credibility in the United
States is useful in trying to understand why errors are made in news reporting. Maier (2005)
found the more errors there were in an article, the less credible was the news story. Errors not
only diminished respect for the newspaper but also tarnished the medias working
relationships with the sources relied upon for information. If sources of news could not trust
the newspaper to get it right, they were unlikely to willingly work with that newspaper in the
future.
Maier (2005) surveyed people who had been used by newspapers in the United States as
sources in news stories to find out from these news sources how accurate they thought the
reports were. Maier also asked the sources why they thought errors happened.
News sources found one or more errors in 61 percent of the news and news feature stories
they reviewed. Multiple errors were common (Maier, 2005, p.539). The top errors were
essential information missing, quotes distorted, story sensationalized, misquotation,
inaccurate headlines on stories, numbers wrong, misspelling, job title wrong, name wrong,
location wrong, time wrong, date wrong, address wrong (Maier, 2005, p.541).
The main reason given by sources, when asked to judge why the reporter made a mistake,
was that the reporter did not understand what he or she was writing about.
Here are the top seven reasons for errors
1. Reporters did not fully understand the story
2. Pressure to get the story done on time
3. Not enough research
4. Did not ask enough questions
5. Events surrounding the story were very confusing
6. Laziness on the part of the news staff
7. Pressure to scoop others.
(Maier, 2005, p.542)

Advice for improvement


News organisations strive to overcome the problems of inaccuracy. The British Broadcasting
Corporation (BBC), which has a worldwide reputation for the accuracy of its journalism, for
example, says it is committed to achieving due accuracy. This commitment is fundamental
to our reputation and the trust of audiences, which is the foundation of the BBC (BBC
Editorial Guidelines, n.d.).
The BBC says, Accuracy is not simply a matter of getting facts right. If an issue is
controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered. When necessary,
all the relevant facts and information should also be weighed to get at the truth (BBC
Editorial Guidelines, n.d.).
The BBC has this advice to its own journalists:
1. Gather material using first hand sources wherever possible;
2. Check and cross check facts;
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3. Validate the authenticity of documentary evidence and digital material;


4. Corroborate claims and allegations made by contributors wherever possible.
In South Africa, the Stars code of ethics and Independent Newspapers code of conduct have
additional tips on accurate reporting in their code of conduct.
1. Sources of news should be identified unless there is good reason not to.
2. Facts should be checked carefully.
3. Reports of a technical nature should always be read back to the source. Other reports
should be read back to the source for the checking of facts only, except when time
does not permit or there is valid reason to believe that the source will endeavour to
frustrate publication on grounds other than factual accuracy.
(The Star, 2009).
The Star also states that the newspaper should not be afraid to admit error, and should publish
corrections spontaneously, promptly and with suitable prominence. Where an apology is
appropriate, it should be tendered (The Star, 1999).
Africa Check, a website based in the Journalism Department of Witwatersrand University,
Johannesburg, advises journalists that sources might actively attempt to mislead them. It
offers a comprehensive checklist with tips on fact-checking (Africa Check, n.d.).
Much of the advice centres on evidence: whether it exists, whether it is verifiable and
whether it is sound.
Africa Check also advises, The fact that the person making a claim cannot, or does not, offer
evidence to back up their statement, makes it harder to check but does not prove it wrong. To
check it, you can turn to credible data sources, acknowledged experts and the crowd.

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About the author


Richard Rooney is an associate professor and head of the Department of Media Studies at the
University of Botswana, Gaborone. He has taught in universities in Europe, Africa and the
Pacific. His research, which specialises in media and their contribution to democracy and
good governance, has been published in books and academic journals across the world.
Suggested citation
Rooney, R. (2015) Would you believe it? Accuracy as an ethical concern in the Botswana
private press. Research Seminar, Media Studies Department, University of Botswana, 23
October 2015, Gaborone, Botswana.

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Other research by Richard Rooney available online


Africa
Editor: The Botswana Media Studies Papers, Vol 1, a collection of papers originally
presented at a series of research seminars hosted by the Department of Media Studies in the
Faculty of Humanities at the University of Botswana during September to November 2013.
Click here
Editor: The Botswana Media Studies Papers, Vol 2, a collection of papers originally
presented at a series of research seminars hosted by the Department of Media Studies in the
Faculty of Humanities at the University of Botswana during 2014. Click here.
How students studying Media Studies in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of
Botswana say they prefer to learn, paper presented at a research seminar at the University of
Botswana, 27 February 2015. Click here
BTV Fails The People: an analysis of Botswana Television News, paper presented at a
research seminar, Media Studies Department, University of Botswana, Gaborone, 20 March
2014. Click here
Social Media and Journalism: The case of Swaziland, Ecquid Novi: African Journalism
Studies, 34:1. 2013. Click here
Characteristics of the Botswana Press Global Media Journal, Africa edition, Vol 6 (1).
Stellenbosch University, South Africa. 2012. Click here
Swazi Newspapers and the Muslim Threat. Lwati A Journal of Contemporary Research.
Vol. 5. 2008 Click here
2008 The New Swaziland Constitution and its Impact on Media Freedom, Global Media
Journal, Africa Edition. Vol. 2. 2008. Click here
The Swazi Press and its Contribution to Good Governance. Global Media Journal African
Edition, Vol 1. (Stellenbosch University, South Africa). 2007. Click here
Suffer The Children Reporting of Minors by the Swazi Press. Lwati: A Journal of
Contemporary Research (Swaziland), Vol 4. 2007. Click here
Challenges in Assessing Vocational Work at a Tertiary Institution a Case Study of Journalism
and Mass Communications at the University of Swaziland Paper presented at the 11th BiAnnual International Symposium for BOLESWANA, Quality Education: Implications for
Regional and Global Development. Hosted by Namibia Educational Research Association /
NERA, at the University of Namibia, Windhoek, Namibia, 6 8 July 2005. Click here
Papua New Guinea
Nambawan to Watch: EMTV, PNGs Only TV Channel, Contemporary PNG Studies, Vol 1.
Nov 2004. Divine Word University, Madang, Papua New Guinea. 2004. Click here
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Information for Empowerment and Development Why the Media is Failing the People of
Papua New Guinea. Information for Empowerment and Development: Why the Media is
Failing the People of Papua New Guinea. Paper presented at the World Media Freedom Day
Conference, Divine Word University, Madang, 30 April 2004. Click here
Media Ownership Trends and the Implications for Democracy in Papua New Guinea. May
2004. Unpublished manuscript. Click here
Rethinking the Journalism Curriculum an experience from Papua New Guinea, Asia-Pacific
Media Educator, Graduate School of Journalism at University of Wollongong, Australia,
Issue 14. 2003. Click here.
Must Try Harder: The Papua New Guinean News Media and Governance 2002: End of Year
Report. Paper Presented at PNG Update 2002 Conference at Divine Word University,
Madang, 5 November 2002, Divine Word University, Madang. 2002 Click here
United Kingdom
News Media and Ideology in the UK, paper presented at a lecture series organised by the
Communication Faculty, Girne American University, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,
22 February 2010. Click here
Male Homosexuality in Britain the Hidden History, paper presented at Association of
Journalism Education, Journalism the First Draft of History conference, London, UK, May
2000. Click here
Think Stuff Unwanted: A History of Tabloid Newspapers in England, unpublished
manuscript. 1999. Click here
Protecting The Innocents, a case study of the coverage by the Liverpool Echo of the
Paedophile Question, paper presented at Association of Journalism Education, Children and
the Media Conference, London, UK, May 1999. Click here
The Dynamics of the British Tabloid Press, Javnost, The Public, Vol. V (3), Journal of
European Institute for Communications and Culture. 1998. Click here
Others
Seven Days in March: World Press Freedom Today, paper presented at World Press Freedom
Day conference, Girne American University, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, 3 May
2010. Click here

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