It is now common and also in the public domain that, there are certain entitlements and privileges which accrue to us by virtue of us being human; these entitlements have been commonly called universal, fundamental or human rights. Among the myriad of human rights that we have is the ever illustrious ‘freedom of expression’. This right is not by any means complex; even the most immature of minds can lightly or readily comprehend its constituents and possibly the aftermath of its violation.
Freedom of expression means or includes the right to have ones thoughts known, to disseminate them, also the right to receive and be given information of whatever sort. Information has been hailed in most parts of the world as the lifeblood and the oxygen for any mature and responsible democracy. In the western world and other mature democracies of the world there has risen talk and endorsement of freedom of information and laws and their implications.
Customarily governments conduct their business in utmost and dire secrecy. It did not come as a shock to discover that among a legion of epithets in different languages used to describe government, there is in Swahili a word referring to government that means deep/fierce secrecy.
The ordinary person seldom knows what is deliberated upon in those dreadful corridors and high offices. The little that he knows is the bread crumbs that the pressman divulges to him after trying with extra-human effort to solicit and extract information from those who are at the helms of power, its supposed custodians.
Should it occur that a certain soul charged with the mandate of keeping ‘confidential’ government information decides to whisper its contents into the ears of his neighbor, his fate would have by then been long decided upon, judgment upon him will be swift, he shall be a castaway, an abomination to those who once entrusted their lives to him. How pitiable!
This culture, like a warm and humid environment for germs, is a perfect breeding place for a specie of a pathogen; which is reputed for sucking the life out of even the once glorious mighty democracies and models of good governance, it does not stop at the command of the faithful few zealots, who profess knowledge in good governance, the Rule of Law and Constitutionalism, it is a trailblazer in its path, only full disclosure will rid government and its various permutations of this horrid and dangerously cancerous creature commonly known as corruption. Corruption, not only breeds and grows in secrecy, it thrives and forges against all odds in secrecy.
These remarks do not stand in isolation and have been raised in international fora. The UN Standards recognise the need for both measures to inform the public about their right to information and to “to address the problem of a culture of secrecy within Government”. Commonwealth Principle 2 recognises this as a positive need, namely to “promote a culture of openness”.
The Joint Declaration of the special mandates calls on the government to “take active steps to address the culture of secrecy that still prevails in many countries within the public sector”. It also calls for steps to be taken “to promote broad public awareness of the access to information law” and generally for “the allocation of necessary resources and attention” to ensure proper implementation of the right to information laws.
Progressive democracies have therefore in light of the discontent arising from the governed attributed to the continued secrecy of government affairs, ventured out to enact Freedom of Information laws (FOI). The move by these select forerunning countries is intended to sensitize governments and citizens alike that information from every sector of the government; be it from the Judiciary, Executive and or the Legislature should be decentralized and disclosed to any concerned or interested member of the public at their request.
The purpose of such initiative being also to state further that governmental information of whatever nature does not belong to those who govern alone as they are but mere custodians, but that it also belongs to the governed, that the former also have an inherent right to know and have access to such information recognizing that if such access is granted to them they will have a meaningful participation in national issues and projects of national concern.
Also reminding those who hold the reins that age old Jefferson mantra that, government is by the people for the people and none should ever think of himself as having some sort of ownership over any of it sectors. This has in its spirit the enduring and inescapable need for public oversight of public institutions.
It is from these premises that Freedom of Information laws gained their prominence. In our hearing these propositions sound almost preposterous and one may hasten to dismiss us as overly imaginative and ambitious. It is after this discourse that we hope that the ordinary man eating tripe and fat cakes at the main mall will know of his right to governmental information, it is hoped that analogies will help whosoever may read of the need for us as the Republic of Botswana to have our own FOI law.
Entitlements (Executive and Public Bodies)
Today when government officials, say the Executive conduct their meetings and there pass or adopt resolutions on certain upcoming national projects, the ordinary Motswana cannot and will not under any circumstances know why those projects were approved. This is so because those deliberations are more often than not, classified and shrouded in deep secrecy. It is often a possibility that in those deliberations there were some dissenting voices and reasons for whatsoever resolution.
Under an FOI law, one is entitled to write a request to the appropriate officer to be granted access to the deliberations of Cabinet and know why that particular decision was adopted by Cabinet. In this way there can be a control on dangers such as insider trading by ministers, particularly those who have business interests as most of them in Botswana do.
With such a law the public can be rest assured that no minister can use information on tenders to his own enrichment (as some stand accused), to the detriment of the ordinary Motswana and later turn to state that they also as Batswana is also entitled to tender and share in the wealth of the country like us all. That being a clear case of conflict of interest and duty which arises from the fact they are not ordinary Batswana, but custodians of certain pieces of information which come into his possession by virtue of his high office.
Further on, with the advent of an FOI law other public bodies will be rendered duty bound to disclose and or to publish the contents of their deliberations, this requisition comes up in FOI laws of other countries and International standards. The UN Standards, for example, state that Freedom of information implies that public bodies publish and disseminate widely documents of significant public interest, for example, operational information about how the public body functions and the content of any decision or policy affecting the public. Briefly put an FOI law in Botswana would entitle us to information from our various public bodies.
If ones seek to know why a certain company in which a minister is a Director continues for a disturbing number of years to win tenders, they as a citizen or even a non citizen like in other countries; will be entitled access to the contents of the PPADB minutes which awarded those tenders, to get the rationale, and the decision to award. Today when the pressman darkens the Board Secretary’s door he’ll be fed useless and shallow bread crumbs when he seeks to know what informed the decision of the Board to continuously award tenders to a single company.
It is now a matter of public knowledge that administrative governmental procedures were brutally violated to procure funds set for disasters in establishing the now notorious spy agency DIS. Who really abused the said procedures? What did they do that they ought to have not? Members of the public are only left to wonder why the agency was against all odds hurriedly established.
Were there no other effective agencies before the arrival of DIS? What of Special Branch? Was it ineffective to combat other forms of advanced crime? Who recommended its eradication to give way to DIS? Was a consultant involved to compile a report on the state of our national security? Was the report one to debate in Parliament? Is it worthwhile that the public be left in the dark? Can’t a disclosure to them be more beneficial than any risk that may ensure from not knowing what is in the said report?
These matters which present themselves for determination are not mere yappery but are deep seated questions which need be addressed lest government continues even further to act in reckless abandon and in the end unleashing upon the citizenry. This concern must be even seriously considered in dealing with such a powerful and loaded institution like the Executive. No wonder in the US FOI law focuses more on disclosure of information by the Executive.
Legislature, Judiciary etal
Parliament sessions are generally open to the public, but the common man should not forget while sited in that air-conditioned pristine environment, that while on those grounds he is deem a stranger by the very law enacted, by persons he voted into power who is there at the mercy of the Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly.
She may, by powers vested in her clear the public attendage and bar the doors. Behind those doors the law making body may then deliberate and those deliberations will ever remain secret until they are rendered useless by lapse of time then disclosed.
The contents of those debates of will forever be shut from public perusal, we ordinary men will be left wondering what the people we voted to power were deliberating upon in our absence. An FOI law if it be adopted shall entitle the citizen to petition the relevant officer to be granted access into those records of Parliament that she is desirous to peruse.
In terms of FOI law principles which will be dealt with in another installment of this article; only limited exceptions to access to information are allowed, that is to say in some instances even national security considerations will not pass unless they are brought under serious scrutiny to see if the need for the public to know overshadows to a great extent the risks that may ensue from the disclosure.
In the Judiciary where the business of judging and interpretation of laws is carried out, the public is normally allowed to sit in and observe justice in administration; this is in accordance with the principle of fair and open justice also with the undying need for public oversight of government.
The pressman enjoys coverage of all matters that he is allowed to attend as a member of the public; he may also with the permission of the Registrar and or the Court bring his cameras into the court room and capture those sacred moments. However if the proceedings be in camera like those deemed to be so sensitive as to not qualify for public consumption, the citizen can only fantasize about what was deliberated upon.
In other matters such as the appointment of judges of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal the ordinary man only learns from his neighbour that His Excellency the President is the one who appoints judges of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal acting in accordance with the advice of the Judicial Service Commission. He is left clueless and is sent to sea as to what those mysterious characters on the Commission may have said or opined to warrant the endorsement or appointment of a particular person to the Bench.
To him these matters are a ‘holy cow’ he even fears to imagine what the members of the Commission may have said to motivate their case before His Excellency. Why shouldn’t the ordinary Motswana be informed on matters that affect him personally? Shouldn’t he know what was said of the man who will later adjudicate upon his case?
Will the knowledge not give him a sense of ownership in his government? Can this practice of deep concealment guarantee these structures insulation against nepotism, politicization personalization and manipulation? Is it not disclosure of their affairs that would insulate them from these evils or worse? Without such antecedents the contribution of the citizen to the good governance of his Republic can never be meaningful.
In a not so distant past a number of High Court judges left the bench. The powers that be were shockingly tight lipped as to what necessitated the departure of those judges. It is said that judges enjoy the most awesome treatment in most matters which we ordinary men cannot attain.
From this background one is left but to wonder as to what may cause one to leave such gracious and plump place like the bench. No report was published by the Registrar to the public as to why they left; any publication by the pressman speculating on their reasons of departure was hastingly dismissed by him as untrue, ill-founded and not worthy of publication. That was how far he could go. With all fairness to the man, how could he possibly go any farther? He is not obliged, only FOI law will place upon him this heavy burden to disclose.
In the wake of major cases such as Kalafatis’ case, CMS case, Nchindo’s case and Kgafela’s case two major public figures were appointed to the High Court bench namely Regional Magistrate Lot Moroka who as he then was presided over the case and Director of Public Prosecutions Leatile Dambe who in that capacity prosecuted the case.
That the duo is competent and qualifies and are worthy of the appointment they now enjoy admits of no argument. But one is left to wonder, didn’t this appointment affect matters which already handled by these officers? Had they have sufficiently completed the said matters when their time to ascend to the bench came? Was it not appropriate to appoint them after such matters were truly and clearly acted upon by them?
These questions are only natural to the common man; his rescue from wonder and misery lies with a Freedom of Information Act, which law will grant him the right and entitlement to governmental information and would have the opportunity to read even further why some decisions are taken. We only hope that such an Act will not as is proposed in South Africa limit access but allow access to information.
Leonard Sechele became the DPP, he succeeding Leatile Dambe, (who established herself then as a Prosecutor of renown) it is said that the former was legal counsel of the spy agency. The Law Society of Botswana pleaded no knowledge to these set of facts.
Shocking it was! Why Sechele? Did he pass as the most able person in matters of prosecution? Would his prior involvement with the embattled and much resented DIS not compromise his objectivity when he is called upon to inherit the files of Mma Dambe who had already initiated prosecution against some of DIS officers or when he is seized with new matters involving his former colleagues at DIS? What informed the highest office in coming to such a decision? It is in the minds of many to know why the most immediate officer at DPP was not appointed to the seat of the national prosecutor.
Truly a myriad of questions would not find their answers; it is in these circumstances that the author is bold enough to state that Botswana needs an FOI law which is in his opinion long overdue. Procrastination, sitting and only wishing that certain things could not happen in our beautiful Botswana is only suicide. There is need for Parliament to act now and avert even worse dangers. Time has never been so opportune for Botswana to adopt such a law.
Other entities in information
Professional bodies such as Botswana Health Professional, Council of Nurses and Midwives, Botswana institute of Accounts, Association of Engineers and all the related shall all come under scrutiny or are they not some sort of a bodies entrusted to see to some interests of the public? The rumors that when a member of the public reports one of their colleagues for dishonorable and unethical conduct, the report is hurriedly brushed aside and not thoroughly considered would all come into the open with advent of a Freedom of Information law because it and only it will not countenance damaging secrecy.
In other Jurisdictions, persons; both natural and juristic, are allowed to have access to government records and archives which contain information about them, they can correct and edit information about themselves; the law obliges them to state matters which are confirmed truth. This is for the simple reason that this way crime can be combated easily as the State will know who to look for and where. Further this gives the citizen a sense of security, belongingness and ownership. He would feel that the government is surely looking to his interests not its own interests or the interests of another to his detriment.
If there are private companies which have courted government on national projects such as the construction of roads, buildings, or any joint partnership that government has any company; the public will as a rule and a principle of FOI law be entitled to access the particulars of such agreements and memorandums. This way you can know the terms under which the public school that your child will go to was built.
The culture of serial prohibitionism, gagging and reckless intimidation by the present government, through certain objectionable Forms to be signed under the clout of national security that now prevails in government enclave needs to cease, but it is only by virtue of an FOI law that these utterly disturbing matters can be tackled. Should we as a nation fail in this regard then we might as well forget about the having a public with unremitting vigilance and oversight of government action, then we should relegate our victory against corruption to fairy tales having no place in real and modern society.
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org