Botswana has been downgraded from “narrowed” to “obstructed” in a new report by the Civicus Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories.
The report, People Power Under Attack 2021, says restrictions on the right to protest and attacks on free speech have led to Botswana’s downgrade.
Historically regarded as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, an “obstructed” rating means civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, are now being continuously undermined in Botswana. Other obstructed countries include Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Brazil.
Civic rights violations have increased in Botswana this year, especially rights relating to the freedom of assembly. In September, a number of citizens were arrested after holding peaceful assemblies calling for government accountability, an end to corruption, and fairer distribution of economic resources.
On 7 September, Reverend Thuso Tiego was arrested after leading a march to the office of President Mokgweetsi Masisi to demand the President’s resignation and protest lack of government accountability. The reverend, along with two other pastors, was charged under the Public Order Act after demonstrating without a permit. While Reverend Tiego was held at a police station, his supporters were violently dispersed by police and some arrested.
Said Sylvia Mbataru, Southern Africa Civic Space Researcher at Civicus: “The arrest of Reverend Tiego while peacefully protesting highlights a worrying trend in Botswana where the government is increasingly failing to protect peoples’ right to peacefully assemble. The Civicus Monitor is alarmed by the growing number of people rounded up and slapped with charges after speaking up against corruption, unemployment and economic disparity.”
In a similar incident, a group of artists was jailed in September after holding a peaceful rally calling for the resignation of the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sports and Culture Development, Tumiso Rakgare. The police arrested protesters under the Public Order Act, stating that the protesters had failed to apply for a permit and that the gathering breached COVID-19 protocols.
The Civicus Monitor says it is concerned about the increased use of the flawed and controversial Public Order Act to police peaceful assemblies in Botswana, and the use of COVID-19 protocols as a pretext to restrict freedom of expression.
This year also saw a downturn in media freedoms in Botswana. Three local journalists, Oratile Dikologang, Justice Motlhabani and digital editor and co-founder of the Botswana People’s Daily News website Letsogile Barupi are currently facing a raft of charges after publishing information about COVID-19 and local politics on their Facebook pages. They deny the charges but face five-year jail sentences and fines of up to P100,000 ($US9,250) if found guilty.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) states that police used a digital extraction device sold by Israel-based Cellebrite to examine Dikologang’s phone. According to the CPJ, it is common for Botswana police to target journalists through arbitrary arrest and then use this technology to scour their devices for sources and contacts.
Across Africa, the detention of journalists is a growing concern in 2021. For the second year in a row, it was the top civic violation documented across the continent.
Over 20 organizations collaborate on the Civicus Monitor, providing evidence and research that help it target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Botswana is now rated ‘obstructed’ on the Civicus Monitor. There are 42 other countries with this rating.