Thursday, December 5, 2019

Blocking Freedom of Information bill angers civil society

At least nine of Botswana’s civil society movements are peeved at the ruling party legislators who used their numbers in parliament to oppose the Freedom of Information Bill (FOB).

The Law Society of Botswana, MISA Botswana Chapter, Press Council of Botswana, Botswana Sector of Educators Trade Union, Botswana Public Employees Union, Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions, Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS, Botswana Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, Botswana Land Boards and Local Authorities Health Workers Union have collectively expressed their disappointment.

The ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), instead of embracing the bill, opted to craft its own version despised by civil society called the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority Bill.
The Freedom of Information Bill was moved by Leader of Opposition and Member of Parliament for Gaborone Central, Dumelang Saleshando, who is also President of the Botswana Congress Party.

“It is disappointing to note that instead of approaching the discussion on the Freedom of Information Bill with the view to improve on the current draft, the government resorted to searching for reasons why the bill should be trashed. Even when the mover of the motion noticed amendments to try and accommodate the views of government, the attack on the bill whilst without substance was condescending and unrelenting,” read a joint statement from the civil society movements.

The civil society has called on legislators to “redeem themselves and rise to the defence of the Constitution of Botswana, which protects, amongst others, freedom of expression and the right to privacy at the next opportunity”.

“In the same breath, we request the MPs in future to play an effective role as a governance structure in Botswana to ensure that approval of legislation is for the benefit of this nation, selfless and for restoring the dignity of our people,” read part of the statement.

Civil society movements regret that the Freedom of Information Bill, which they describe as a progressive piece of legislation geared towards giving Batswana the right to access information, has been shot down.

“The government mounted a spirited campaign against the Bill, labeling it ‘mischievous’. Amongst reasons for the foregoing being that the phrase ‘public interest’ is not defined and could be open to any interpretation and further that the Bill requires sensitive documents, such as minutes of Cabinet, to be made public. Efforts to explain that the phrase is generally understood and is similar to “public good” or “public benefit” did not bear any fruit,” civil society groups said.
They argue that the fact that there are several exemptions to the disclosure or supply of information such as for, National security and defense, Legal professional privilege, Personal privilege, Trade secrets and business affairs, National economic issues was ignored by Parliament.

The civil society groups say they expected Parliament would amend the BOCRA bill to return to the three tier system of broadcasting which was adopted by the government as articulated in various official policy and legislation including the Broadcasting Act of 1998.

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