Botswana needs a Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate that it has a transparent and respectful government.
This was said by Al Cross, the Director of the Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues in the United States of America.
Addressing journalists on the need for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Cross said the Act influenced the recent change of government in the United Kingdom.
Botswana journalists have been complaining about difficulty in accessing public records to validate news reports relating to government’s administrative procedures. As a result, they resorted to speculation, which could be avoided if there was easy access to information.
An absence of such a law, said Cross, works to disadvantage the public because they are not sufficiently informed about what is going on in their country. ┬á
“The great value of a FOIA is that it gives access to records, which results in better documentation of facts, instead of individual statements, which are often laced with opinion,” said Cross.
Cross added that recent reports of corruption in governments across the world make a case for Batswana to hold their political leaders and public servants accountable for their actions while in office.
“To achieve that, the public should be allowed free access to government records. Only the FOIA can ensure that information about government dealings is availed to the general public without a hassle,” he said.
Cross made reference to a case in his home state, Kentucky, where the FOIA was used to show how coal mining companies were falsifying air-test reports, which resulted in a lot of miners suffering from black-lung disease.
Panelists at the event also stressed that access to information will not only benefit reporters, but the general citizenry, researchers, academics and other interests.
Cross said public support for the Freedom of Information Act will inevitably increase, once the public becomes aware that the Act will result in availability of information to all, and not just to journalists.
He, however, cautioned that freedom of information should not lead to breach of national security.
“However, such risks can be avoided by making specific exceptions to the Act. In Kentucky, the FOIA has several exceptions on trade secrets, preliminary drafts, and unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Sometimes the courts have to decide what those exceptions really mean,” said Cross.