Sunday, May 29, 2022

Absence of freedom-of-information law also hinders academic research

That the media suffers great inconvenience from the absence of freedom-of-information (FOI) law is very well known. Less known though is the fact that academia is also often unable to gain access to all the information it needs in order to undertake effective research. As Dr. Peter Sebina at the University of Botswana explains, failure to get access to information can impact negatively on the quality of life in society.

“If you want to research governance but can’t access up-to-date information, then your research needs are defeated. You are unable to produce research findings that can improve the quality of life and take the country forward,” says Sebina. Drawing a parallel with the media situation, he illuminates the importance of obtaining information timeously. What happens all too often with the media in Botswana is that government departments rarely ever respond to oral queries instantly, preferring instead to have questions submitted in writing.

In some cases, it can take up to four months to get the response. “By the time the response comes, the information is stale and of no use. The same goes for research: as an academic I have a research agenda and have to do my research within a limited time frame. If I have to persuade someone who does not feel obligated to give me information, then it becomes difficult to perform my research,” says Sebina who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Information and Library Studies. He gives an example of one taking research interest in a time-sensitive topic like corruption. For this research to be effective, this person needs to be given access to up-to-date information about corruption issues in the country. With the FOI regime being what it is in Botswana, such researcher may end up giving up and in so doing, deny the nation the benefits that would have accrued to it from the findings of that research. Faced with a situation where one cannot make FOI requests as is the case in progressive jurisdictions, the Botswana media has been known to rely on anonymous sources, use leaked documents and proffer speculative commentary in an attempt to shine a light on obscure areas of government operations.

Academics, on the other hand, can’t do that sort of thing. In certain quarters there is a misconception of what freedom of information means, with some thinking that it means that citizens will be given unfettered access to all manner of information. The reality though is that some information would still be protected from public disclosure. In Botswana, researchers are required to apply for a permit from the relevant ministry. By way of example, a researcher who wants to investigate corruption in Botswana would have to apply to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and Public Administration under which the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime falls. Conversely, other African countries have liberalised their official records to the degree it is necessary to do so. Sebina says that just next door in South Africa, academics are not required to apply for a permit to undertake research.

As at least one case proves, South African researchers would find the effectiveness of their research severely limited when they come to Botswana. Between 2008 and 2009, two researchers from the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand conducted field research in Botswana on Zimbabwean migration. The report they subsequently published says that “permission issues prevented us from acquiring information from the Ministry of Health and the Dukwi refugee camp.”

The media fraternity has officialised its grievances about the status quo and one would be curious as to why academia has not been heard to publicly raise its voice when it is facing the same problem. Actually it is according to Sebina but as he explains, few would know about that because the platform from which these voices are being raised (academic journals) reaches a limited audience. However, plans are well in train to take this campaign to the next level.

Sebina reveals that he and some colleagues at UB (he mentions the name of one in the Faculty of Law) are in the process of setting up an association that would tackle issues of open governance. “Freedom of information is very important in that regard,” he says. One other plan is a perception study that, among others, would target media practitioners and academics. “At times we assume people know what freedom of information is when that may not be the case. The focus of the perception study is on what it means because freedom-of-information law will only achieve its purpose when people know what the concept means,” Sebina says. UB recently scored low marks in a report from a South African think tank that explicitly states that the varsity’s research output is far from the ideal. To the question of whether lack of access to information might be a causal factor, Sebina says it would be “silly” to make such correlation in the absence of empirical evidence. There is a related question: Can Botswana’s Education Hub achieve its aim of making the country “a preferred education destination” in a situation where research needs are defeated and production of knowledge effectively curtailed? Sebina’s answer is that if the Hub hopes to achieve its aims through research, then it would be absolutely vital that all the elements that aid effective research are in place.

However, access alone is not enough. What is perhaps the most important thing about freedom-of-information regime is that the records that people (researchers, journalists and others) are given access to must be available all the time. In an academic paper that Sebina co-authored with Rick Snell, a senior lecturer in administrative law at the University of Tasmania, the point about good record-keeping with regard to freedom of information is stated in the following way: “Records management shares with FOI the capacity to enhance the corporate governance model. Where a government adopts a corporate governance model predicated on both good records management and FOI legislation, the expectation is that a government will become more responsible. Therefore, if governments are unable to maintain and operate good records management programs, it is unlikely that they will be transparent and accountable, let alone be able to prove that due process is followed when carrying out public functions. Where good records management is lacking, record capture becomes problematic and FOI becomes problematic.

Where goods records management exists and FOI legislation is effective, governments can prove their responsiveness to citizens through being transparent and through their ability to explain and to report to citizens.” That could be a tall for the Botswana government where records go missing with alarming frequency. The situation is so serious that it has drawn both the attention and ire of Nehemiah Modubule, the immediate past chairman of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

“It is with great concern that some ministries approach PAC to account when some of their records are missing and it has become a trend that should not be tolerated,” Modubule said at a press briefing earlier this year.

In a dispensation where the government levels the playing field, benefit would accrue not just to researchers and journalists but to the entire nation as well. “FOI legislation allows government to hold it to account without waiting for it to account to them. Citizens can make enquiries into the different aspects of governance and FOI legislation enables them to gain direct access to the records which answer their queries,” Sebina and Snell write.

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