“Alarming findings on freedom of speech” in Botswana by an Afrobarometer study has revealed for the first time the extent to which former President Lt Gen Ian Khama has steered the once shining example of democracy towards a dictatorship.
The report which was published last week revealed that under Khama’s reign, freedom of speech plunged to its lowest level in the country’s history with most Batswana afraid of speaking their minds.
The report which covered the ten year period of Khama’s presidency stated that, “this is the first time since the 2005 survey that Batswana who say you often or always have to be careful in discussing politics outnumber those who say you rarely or never have to be careful about political speech.
The fear is highest among Botswana’s educated elite and youths. The study found out that 60 percent of Batswana who have studied beyond secondary education are afraid to express their view. Even the youths who are often considered outspoken radicals would not express political opinions without looking over their shoulders. The report found that 54% of those in the 18 to 35 age group feel that you “always” have to be careful when discussing politics. The Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) former President Khama’s security apparatus controlled and cowed Batswana even while he was dispensing blankets and food humpers, a profoundly mixed legacy which has polarised opinion about Khama in power and in retirement.
The report states that “most Batswana see their country as a democracy, but satisfaction with the way their democracy is working has declined by 24 percentage points over the past decade from 83% in 2008 to 59%.” It further emerged that “perceptions of freedom of speech are declining: Over the past decade, the share of Batswana who feel “somewhat free” or “completely free” to say what they think has dropped by 20 percentage points, to 73%. All the people of Botswana who say people “often” or “always” have to be careful about what they say about politics has grown to 49%.”
For the first time, Botswana has a comprehensive and holistic overview of the state of freedom of expression in the country and the information shows that curbs on free speech have grown tighter. Afrobarometer stated in its preamble that: “Botswana has long been considered a leader in democratic practice, ranking among Africa’s best performers with regard to good governance, the rule of law, and respect for civil liberties. But in recent years, the same experts who have given the country high marks have also downgraded Botswana’s freedom status in response to a series of attacks on media and arrests of journalists (Freedom House, 2016), placed it among high-scoring but “deteriorating” countries in terms of good governance (Mo Ibrahim, 2016), and criticized former President Ian Khama’s “reliance on edicts and decision by caprice” (Good, 2009, p. 320). While scholars credit the country with conducting regular and free elections within a multiparty system, they also note that a single party has dominated electoral competition since independence (Kebonang & Kaboyakgosi, 2017; Taylor, 2003; Good & Taylor, 2007).
Findings from the most recent Afrobarometer survey in Botswana suggest that some citizens, too, are troubled by developments in their democracy over the past decade. While Batswana still strongly endorse democracy and multiparty competition, they are significantly less likely to express satisfaction with the way their democracy is working and feel less free to say what they think.”
Khama was among authoritarian rulers across the globe who adopted American President Donald Trump’s favorite phrase to limit free speech. Khama was among at least 15 leaders or state media in at least 15 countries using Trump’s “fake news” line to denounce critics. By aligning themselves with Trump’s words, despots have been able to use the U.S. president as a shield for their attacks on press freedom and human rights, said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Afrobarometer is a pan-African, independent, non-partisan research network that measures public attitudes on economic, political, and social matters in Africa.