Botswana Congress Party (BCP) president Dumelang Saleshando's effort towards Freedom of Information, which was defeated in Parliament after presentation in 2012 could be resuscitated following findings by Afrobarometer that a majority of Batswana demand it. Moved by Saleshando – the former Gaborone Central MP – during the 10th session, the Freedom of Information Bill was defeated on the floor of Parliament by a majority Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) MPs. The ruling party legislators forced the Bill to de deferred insisting that further consultations were necessary and that it had to await the passing of a Data Protection Act, in view of technological developments. The FoI Act would see the public including journalists obtain access to official critical information which is currently a taboo. The latest Afrobarometer results, launched at the University of Botswana last Friday, show that Batswana strongly support the public's right to access information held by government. This finding is among a raft of other findings including views about monitoring of private conversations, media freedom and the use of electronic voting machines. Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in African countries.
Presenting the findings, Professor Mpho Molomo said freedom of information is one of the yardsticks that measure the extent to which a country is transparent and willing to subject itself to public scrutiny. The role of the media in this regard is paramount as it not only keeps the population knowledgeable but also helps hold the government accountable. By a 2 to 1 margin, Batswana support the freedom of the media to publish without government interference, according to the latest Afrobarometer survey. Almost two-thirds (62%) of Batswana agree or agree very strongly that the media should have the right to publish any views or ideas without government censorship. One in three respondents (32%) favour the government’s right to prevent publication of things it considers harmful to society. The survey also revealed that popular support for media freedom increased by seven percentage points from 2014, though it remains below the 2008 level of 80%. "City dwellers are more likely to support press freedom (66%) than semi-urban (62%) and rural (58%) residents, as are better-educated respondents compared to those with less education. The middle-aged are more likely to agree that the media should be free of government interference than are youth or the elderly," said Prof Molomo. By demographic group, the pattern in similar to views on freedom of civil society and the political opposition with men, urban residents, younger respondents and the better educated more likely to perceive freedom shrinking than women, rural dwellers, elders and those with less education.
Commenting on the decline in media freedom from an all-time high of 80% in 2008, to an all-time low of 55% in 2014, Botswana National Front (BNF) spokesperson Justin Hunyepa blamed the Ian Khama presidency for encroaching in media space. He said it does not come as a surprise that when Khama came into office in 2008, media freedom immediately dropped by 20% to reach its lowest during the 2014 general elections. "What did we expect when Khama openly accused the media of being unpatriotic and purged them, even refusing to host a single press conference during his tenure to interact with journalists? We are only seeing a slight improvement in perceptions about media freedom now because Khama is leaving office in four months," said Hunyepa, referring to the seven per cent increase from 2014. He opined that public perceptions could be improving as more Batswana expect the more educated incoming President Mokgweetsi Masisi to have a much better relationship with the media. Batswana are almost evenly divided in their perceptions of how media freedom has been evolving; 41% say the media now enjoys somewhat more or much more freedom to investigate and criticise the government than a few years ago, while 43% say there is somewhat much less freedom. A perception of less freedom is more common among men (47%) than women (37%) and among urbanites (51%) compared to rural residents (35%). Batswana with a post-secondary education are more than twice as likely to complain of less media freedom (62%) as those with only a primary education (27%) or no formal education (30%), and younger respondents are more critical of shrinking media freedom than their elders.
Access to information
The survey also found that Batswana strongly support the public's right to access information held by Government. Freedom of information is one of the cornerstones of the liberal democratic framework. Although Botswana is considered a frontrunner in democratic practice in Africa, the law does not provide that individuals and the news media have the right to access information held by public authorities at all levels. If free media, civil society and political opposition are important to a democratic society, citizen access to information held by public institutions is fundamental to both democratic participation and accountability. As one measure of popular support for freedom of information, Afrobarometer asked respondents whether they agree with the idea that information held by public authorities is only for use by government officials and should not have to be shared with the public. In their responses, Batswana endorse freedom of information. 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. Support for sharing government information with the public, rather than shielding it for government use only, is strong across genders and age groups, and increases with respondents' education level ranging from 54% of those with no formal education to 70% among the best educated. But when asked whether they think they could obtain such information from a variety of government institutions, substantial proportions of respondents say they probably could not. An overwhelming majority (73%) of respondents agree or agree very strongly that it is more important to ensure that citizens can hold government accountable than to have a government that can get things done. Yet without the ability to obtain such information, citizens would face enormous hurdles in holding government accountable- a high priority in Botswana.
Right to privacy
The right to private communication is an important aspect of freedom of information in the digital/ telecommunications age, allowing individuals to exchange information and opinions without fear of reprisal. It is also one of the rights that may conflict, at times, with the government's efforts to fight crime and terrorism by monitoring certain communications.When asked to choose between the two priorities when it comes to private communications, such as mobile phone conversations, six in 10 Batswana (59%) agree or agree very strongly that people should have the right to communicate in private without a government agency reading or listening to what they say. One third (33%) of respondents disagree, supporting the government's ability to monitor private conversations to make sure people are not plotting violence. This protection of private communication is particularly valued by younger respondent, 67% of 18 to 25 year olds against 47% of those aged 56 and older and better educated citizens (76%) of those with post-secondary qualifications against (45%) of those with no formal education. Urban residents (66%) are also more likely than rural dwellers (53%) to favour private communication free of government monitoring. By political party affiliation support for unmonitored private communication is strongest among Botswana Congress party supporters (68%) and weakest among adherents of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP).
Opposition: A viable alternative
A majority of Batswana say opposition parties offer a viable alternative vision and plan to the long-time ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), according to the 2017 Afrobarometer survey. The 2019 general elections are widely seen as an important test for the opposition, which has been gaining strength under its Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) coalition. Key findings of the survey show that six in 10 Batswana (62%) believe that opposition parties present a viable alternative vision and plan for the country. Men (65%) and urban residents (64%) are more likely to see opposition parties as a viable alternative than women (58%) and rural residents (57%). Perceptions of the opposition as a viable alternative were also found to increase with respondents’ education level.
Political party funding
State funding of political parties in Botswana remains a contested issue and after 50 years of independence, a law providing for the funding of parties has not been enacted. This is in spite of the countless calls from stakeholders including civil society and opposition parties to provide for such a law to fund political parties in order to level electoral competition and enhance democracy. Opposition parties have decried the unfair advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the ruling party, lamenting that it is not in the interest of the BDP to support a law on state funding of political parties. However, as debates continue on the need for state funding of parties, Afrobarometer survey findings show that almost two thirds of Batswana want political parties to be financed based on their performance in national elections. More that majority (63%) of Batswana call for state funding of parties based on electoral performance. Two-thirds (64%) of men say that the state should fund political parties compared with 62% of women. Support for state funding of parties does not differ by location as 62% rural and semi-urban dwellers agree with 63% urban dwellers.