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Dispatch

AD172: Freedom of information: Batswana back private communication, public accountability

Mpho G. Molomo and Wilford Molefe 21 Nov 2017 Botswana
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Key findings
  • By a 2-to-1 margin (62% vs. 32%), Batswana support the news media’s right to publish any views or ideas without government control. More than four in 10 (43%) say the media’s freedom to investigate and criticize the government has diminished in recent years, but an equal proportion say it has increased.
  • Six in 10 Batswana (61%) say opposition political parties and candidates enjoy “somewhat” or “much” more freedom than they did a few years ago. A plurality (45%) say the same about civil-society groups.
  • About two-thirds (64%) of Batswana disagree with the idea that information held by public authorities is only for use by government officials and should not be shared with the public.
  • But many think it’s unlikely they would be able to access government information on school budgets (47%), land ownership (45%), and development plans and budgets (39%).
  • Almost three-quarters (73%) of Batswana say it’s more important for citizens to hold government accountable than to have a government that gets things done.

Freedom of information is a critical facet of democratic governance. The right to information is not only essential to the news media in authenticating its reports and reducing the realm of speculation, but it is also a prerequisite for an informed citizenry capable of holding its government accountable. A democratic society requires a free flow of information and ideas, whether between citizens in private communication or in public discourse involving civil society and political parties. Yet freedom of information can also be seen as a challenge by governments required to open their operations to public scrutiny and perhaps limit state actions in pursuit of national security.

In Botswana, the constitution provides for free speech and a free press, but efforts to legally protect citizens’ rights to privacy in communication (such as mobile phones) and to obtain information held by public authorities have not advanced. With strong civil-society backing, a private member’s bill for freedom of information was introduced in 2010 that would ensure the right of the public and the media to access information held by public authorities at all levels. However, the bill was withdrawn on the understanding that the government was preparing a similar bill, and neither version has ever come to Parliament for debate (Regonamanye, 2016).

Meanwhile, even basic press freedoms have come under attack: Amnesty International (2017) has flagged Botswana for harassment and intimidation of journalists.

The latest survey from Afrobarometer shows that a majority of Batswana endorse freedom of information in the media’s right to publish without government interference, citizens’ right to access government information, and individuals’ right to private communication without government monitoring. Many see growing freedom for opposition political parties and civilsociety to function, but they feel unable to freely access government information that would enable them to hold their public officials accountable.

Mpho Molomo

Mpho G. Molomo is professor of politics at University of Botswana and a research associate with Star Awards. <br />

Wilford Molefe

Wilford is the statistician for Star Awards