Saturday, December 9, 2023

Government must come out clean on Freedom of Information Act

During the last sitting of Parliament, an attempt was made by Member of Parliament for Gaborone Central, Dumelang Saleshando, now the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, to sponsor a private member’s Bill. A draft Freedom of Information Bill was circulated.

It is important to note that Saleshando had embarked on a commendable consultative process that included almost all the stakeholders that one can think of.

To their credit, Members of Parliament from across the political divide had shown keen interest on the Bill, at least as shown by the enthusiasm in their participation not to mention the high turnout at the many workshops that were designed for information sharing purposes not only with the sponsor of the Bill but also with the experts from around the world who have been involved in similar laws elsewhere.

For a time, we all thought this was a landmark development, not only because such an important law was being brought into parliament under the guises of a private member’s initiative, but more importantly because there seemed to be a multi-partisan consensus that this was the direction the country should be moving.

That was until an unsigned memo hit the scene and contaminated the air.
The memo, ostensibly originating from the Office of the President, and up to now not disowned by the office took aim at the proposed law.

The memo effectively cast aspersions on the efficacy of the Freedom of Information Act in Botswana.
The memo, in very general and disingenuous terms, one might add, effectively said Botswana was not ready for a Freedom of Information Act.

Until the Office of the President officially states their position on this memo, we are reluctant to say its contents are a true reflection of the views of the Office with regards to Freedom of Information.

But we are worried by the lack of forthrightness not to mention explicit support of the Office of President towards promoting progress towards getting this Bill before parliament and setting the tone and agenda for necessary and open consultations that will get it embraced.
The mysterious memo has once again ignited Memories of how the Office of the President facilitated by way of planting a member of parliament who has since been promoted to become a junior minister to rail track the Media Practitioners Act.

Under President Ian Khama, there is little evidence to show thus far that Botswana government is committed to broadening the frontiers of freedom of expression at least by providing instrument that would lend the provisions as contained in the Constitution more practical and meaningful applications.

Freedom of Information Act is very important tool that can be used to empower individual citizens and corporate citizens in their daily interactions with state institutions to access more information.

The practice the world over when adopting a Freedom of Information Act is to allow sufficient room for flexibility and caution. There is no reason why in Botswana we should reinvent the wheel. Rather, what we need to do is establish just what the case is in countries where this law has operated with minimum friction between the state and consumers of information who are, by the way, the citizens.

There are those areas like national security that are explicitly exempted.
If the State is coming to the table in good faith, it surely would be easier to establish a common ground.

We call on the promoters of the law who include Saleshando himself, civic organizations and indeed the media to be more flexible in their interactions with government not only as a way of establishing trust and confidence but also allaying the genuine fears that any state would have when it ventures into a new territory such as that envisaged by this piece of law.

The problem, from where we are sitting, is that it would appear like government perceives this law is designed to benefit the media, who by the way the government does not only detest but has gone a mile and half by introducing other laws to restrict.

The truth of the matter is that Freedom of Information Act is a tool to empower citizens.
The media, if they benefit from it, is just a small proportion compared to the general citizenry that are ultimately the intended beneficiaries.


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