The Leader of the Opposition, DUMELANG SALESHANDO, returns from a progressive meeting in Windhoek, Namibia ever more convinced that freedom of information is central to good governmance because it lies at the very foundations of democracy
I have had the privilege of recently attending a meeting in Namibia a week ago whose objective was to create a national platform for dialogue on access to information. The meeting brought together a number of stakeholders representing the Namibian civil society, all of whom are united in the desire to strengthen their country's democracy by campaigning for the introduction of Freedom of Information (FOI) law.
Amongst the delegates were a number of participants who represented different organisations that undertake similar campaigns in different countries. What struck me about the experiences of different African countries is that most of their governments have long stated that they are committed to introducing a FOI law, but very few have made meaningful steps to ensure that the law is enacted. It makes sense to state that in principle, one is committed to such a law because it is central to the promotion of good governance. Any pronouncement to the contrary would attract negative publicity as that would be tantamount to rejecting the very foundations of democracy. So, the African countries have decided to play it safe - state that you are committed but frustrate all efforts geared at introducing the law.
For most of the African countries that have adopted the FOI law, the campaign for the introduction of the law spanned many years. In the case of Nigeria, the campaign started in 1999 but the law was only adopted in May 2011. The campaign was rolled out for over 10 years and there were times when it looked like mission impossible. In the case of Zambia, the campaign for FOI started in 1991 but it is only now that there seems to be a reasonable prospect for the law to be introduced. Ghana also has a campaign that has been on-going for over 10 years. There is now a draft bill in Ghana that also seems to have some prospect for survival.
With the above background, I think that Botswana is a newcomer to the FOI campaign. Some may say that the country committed itself to adopting the FOI law in 1996 when the long term Vision was launched. It is true that the Vision document identifies the need for FOI, but we all know that besides the promise for the introduction of the law, government has never taken any steps geared at formulating such a law. We have, like other African countries, stated that which is fashionable to state by affirming commitment to the principle but doing everything possible to ensure that the law is never introduced.
In August 2007, I posed a question in Parliament to follow up on the pledge of the 1996 Vision document. The question was posed to the then Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi.
For clarity and completeness, the full question and response are stated below. Question: To ask the Minister if she would consider introducing a Freedom of Information Act, if there is such a consideration, when she expects to table such a law.
Answer: Honourable Speaker, I have no plans to introduce a Freedom of Information Act. I am convinced that the actions I have taken to-date are adequate to improve the flow of information between government and the public.
As the Honourable Member is aware, consultation on Broadcasting Policy is on-going, the Mass Media Bill and the Cybercrime Bill will soon be ready for Cabinet, and later, Parliament consideration. The existence of the Media Advisory Council, which is a sub-committee of the High Level Consultative Council, ensures consultation between government and the media. In addition, Mr. Speaker, government is in the process of establishing the new Botswana Government Communications Information Services Unit (BGCIS) within the Office of the President. All these actions are intended to improve the flow of information from government to both domestic and international audiences. I am convinced that a combination of all these activities will, to a very large extent, be in keeping with the principles enshrined in the Freedom of Information laws, wherever they exist."
When I shared the above extract from our Hansard, there was a round of laughter from the audience in Namibia.
I assumed that the laughter was the most decent way of expressing shock at the Botswana government's position. The response displayed the deep-rooted conceptual misunderstanding of what FOI is. The collective view of the Botswana executive was that a combination of public relations interventions can in their totality amount to upholding the principles of freedom of information laws. It can never be reasonably argued that a statutorily provided right to access information can be equated to, or substituted by, periodic press releases from government offices.
The government's position has, however, changed since August 2007. There is now general acceptance that a FOI law is needed. Government now accepts that there is a difference between their public relations exercise and the need to have a law granting the public the right to access information held by public bodies.
It can therefore not be argued that the campaign for FOI in Botswana started in 1996 with the adoption of Vision 2016, given that as at August 2007, the position of the Botswana government was not in support of FOI, notwithstanding what the Vision 2016 document stated. My view is that the Botswana campaign for FOI will probably only start in earnest after the 16 October 2012 vote by the National Assembly on the draft FOI law. Unlike in other countries, our process has taken off in the reverse order. Whilst Parliament is normally the final stage for the FOI law, in the case of Botswana it has become the launching pad for the campaign. Those who own vehicles that are old and prone to faulty starters know very well that you may choose to start the vehicle whilst being pushed in a backward motion and in reverse gear. The same results will be achieved as in the case of those who choose to push the vehicle forward because ultimately the vehicle will start.
There is sufficient goodwill to launch the campaign for a FOI law. Sufficient public and political goodwill has been secured through the debate and vote of October 16.
What may have seemed to be a death of FOI in Botswana is, in my view, the beginning of a more sustained and informed campaign for the law. There are now many more Batswana who know that there is something called FOI and what the benefits of having such a law are. More Batswana know that there is need to hold government accountable and that this is only possible if the average citizen has more, not less, information about the activities of government.
More Batswana understand that prospects for corrupt activities within the public service are minimised when the public has greater access, not less, to information. There is no need to despair following the Parliamentary defeat at the hands of the BDP majority.
As the great American constitutionalist James Madison once wrote, "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both."