Botswana | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Botswana

Botswana

Free
72/100
Overview: 

While it is considered one of the most stable democracies in Africa, Botswana has been dominated by a single party since independence. Media freedom remains under threat. The indigenous San people, as well as migrants, refugees, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people, face discrimination.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • Mokgweetsi Masisi became caretaker president of Botswana in April, upon the end of the constitutional term of President Ian Khama. Masisi will serve in that capacity until lawmakers elect a new president after the 2019 general elections.
  • In May, Masisi fired the chief of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services, (DISS), Colonel Isaac Seabelo Kgosi. The spy agency was accused of corruption and human rights abuses under Kgosi’s leadership.
  • Masisi transferred the DISS and the Financial Intelligence Agency (FIA), to the president’s office, prompting concerns about the improper centralization of power. The DISS had previously been part of the Justice Ministry, and the FIA part of the Finance Ministry.
  • In April, security personnel physically prevented journalists from covering the return of elite national athletes to Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, near Gabarone.
  • In September, the government withdrew sedition charges against Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone. The charges were filed in 2014, after he reported that Khama had been involved in a traffic accident.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 28 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

The president is indirectly elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term and is eligible for reelection. The vice president is appointed by the president and confirmed by the National Assembly. The president holds significant power, including the authority to prolong or dismiss the National Assembly.

President Khama’s constitutional term expired at the end of March 2018, and Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi was sworn in as interim president according to legal procedure the next day. He will serve in that capacity until a new presidential election is held following general elections set for 2019. This scripted succession seemingly gives new leaders of the incumbent party—in this case the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has been in power for over five decades—the opportunity to consolidate the advantages of incumbency ahead of presidential elections.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Botswana has a unicameral, 65-seat National Assembly. Voters directly elect 57 members to five-year terms, 6 members are nominated by the president and approved by the National Assembly, and the other 2 members are the president and the speaker. The 2014 parliamentary elections, in which the ruling party won 37 out of 57 seats, were declared credible by regional and international monitoring bodies.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) administers elections, and is generally considered independent and capable. However, its voter registration drive ahead of the 2019 general elections saw the theft of two voter registration books, containing a few dozen complete and incomplete registration forms, from an electoral officer’s house.

The Electoral Amendment Act of 2016, which introduced electronic voting for the 2019 general elections, continued to cause controversy in 2018. The opposition Botswana Congress Party (BCP) had claimed that electronic voting was susceptible to manipulation in favor of the BDP, and had threatened to boycott 2019 general elections if the new voting technology was implemented. Plans for the system’s deployment remained unclear throughout most of 2018; it was only in September that the government unexpectedly withdrew several sections of the 2016 electoral law, among them the one that had mandated electronic voting. Masisi said the decision was made in order to avoid election-related violence.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 10 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4

The right of political parties to form and operate is largely respected. However, the opposition alleges that the BDP abuses state resources, including the influential state media, to its own benefit, and that a lack of public financing for political parties gives the long-ruling party an unfair advantage. The withdrawal in 2018 of a section of the Electoral Amendment Act of 2016 that had increased fees for candidates contesting elections brought some relief to opposition parties.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2 / 4

The BDP, drawing on the advantages of its long incumbency, has dominated the political landscape since 1966; no opposition party has ever won power. However, in 2014 the BDP took less than 50 percent of the vote for the first time in its history.

In 2012, several of the largest opposition parties formed a coalition, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), to contest elections, and there is some hope among its members and supporters that it might unseat the ruling party in 2019 elections. However, persistent political fights within the coalition—including the expulsion in October 2018 of the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), and resulting jockeying for the constituencies its members vacated—threaten the coalition’s competitiveness ahead of 2019 polls.           

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4

People’s political choices are largely free from domination by unelected outside groups. The House of Chiefs, a 35-member body composed mostly of traditional leaders, representatives they elect, and representatives appointed by the president, acts as an advisory body to legislators on tribal and customary matters, but generally does not exercise decisive influence on them. There have been some past reports of vote buying during elections.

B4.      Do all segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4

Women have full political rights, but cultural factors limit their participation, and their interests are not necessarily addressed by elected leaders. Only five women sit in the National Assembly and only two women serve in the House of Chiefs.

Smaller ethnic and tribal groups tend to be left out of the political process. People with disabilities participated at low levels in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Political parties generally do not represent the interests of LGBT people.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 8 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4

Elected executive and legislative officials determine government’s policies. However, opposition parties have criticized the executive branch for dominating the National Assembly and rushing bills through the legislative process without adequate deliberation. In 2016, lawmakers approved an amendment that increased the number of National Assembly members appointed by the president from four to six. Opposition leaders argued that the change would further strengthen executive power at the expense of the National Assembly’s independence.

After taking office in 2018, Masisi transferred the DISS and the Financial Intelligence Agency (FIA), to the president’s office, prompting concerns about the improper centralization of power. The DISS had previously been part of the Justice Ministry, and the FIA part of the Finance Ministry.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4

Although corruption laws are generally enforced, the main anticorruption agency, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC), stands accused of being ineffective in pursuing cases of high-level corruption, and its independence has been questioned after it was transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Office of the President in 2012. However, at the end of 2018, the DCEC issued several charges in connection with an ongoing corruption scandal involving the National Petroleum Fund.

An amendment to the Financial Intelligence Act approved in June transferred the FIA from the Finance Ministry to the president’s office, raising similar concerns about the independence of that body.                                               

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Botswana lacks a freedom of information law, which limits government’s transparency. Budget processes are opaque, and Section 44 of the Corruption and Economic Crime Act prohibits publishing information on investigations by the DCEC. Public contracts are often awarded through patronage networks.

Masisi has held several press conferences since taking power in April 2018—in contrast to Khama, who held none.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 44 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 12 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed. However, journalists endured harassment and intimidation under Khama’s government, and concerning incidents have been reported under the new administration. For example, in April, security personnel physically prevented journalists from covering the return of national athletes to Sir Seretse Khama International Airport near Gabarone.

State-run media dominate the broadcasting sector, and continue to exhibit bias in favor of the ruling party. A government ban on advertising in private media remains in place, and harms the competitiveness and economic viability of many outlets. The 2008 Media Practitioners Act established a statutory media regulatory body and mandated the registration of all media workers and media outlets—including websites and blogs—with violations being punishable by either a fine or prison time.

In a positive development, in September 2018, Masisi’s administration withdraw sedition charges against Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone. The charges were filed in 2014, after he reported that Khama had been involved in a traffic accident.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Religious freedom is generally respected in practice, though all religious organizations must register with the government.                               

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

Although academic freedom is generally respected, professors often practice self-censorship when addressing sensitive topics. In the past, foreign academics have been deported for publishing work that was critical of the government, contributing to cautiousness among many scholars.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

Although freedom of expression is constitutionally protected, there are numerous restrictions on it in practice, prompting self-censorship among many ordinary people. Insulting the president, a lawmaker, or public official is punishable by a fine. The 2008 Public Service Act restricts the ability of public-sector workers to air their political views, and a 2017 judgment by the Court of Appeal affirmed this. In October 2018, President Masisi reminded a teacher of this restriction at a kgotla (public meeting) in Serowe during which the teacher questioned Masisi about his work during the Khama administration, and about perceived disputes between the two.

In recent years, the DISS has developed technology to monitor private online communications.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution and largely upheld in practice. However, the Public Order Act requires citizens to seek permission from the police to exercise this right. The constitutionality of this clause has been questioned in the past, and permission at times has been denied on unclear grounds by the police.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including human rights groups, generally operate without restrictions. However, in late May 2018, President Masisi banned a well-known South African human rights lawyer, Joao Carlos Salbany, from entering Botswana. He reversed the decision after coming under criticism from the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and other rights advocates.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

The right to form a union is respected, but the Trade Dispute Act places restrictions on who can strike. As a result, the government declares many strikes to be illegal, putting employees’ jobs at risk. The law does not always protect workers from antiunion discrimination by employers.

In October 2018, the government moved ahead with plans to derecognize public service unions for allegedly not complying with provisions of the Public Service Act of 2008. Labor leaders condemned authorities’ demands as sudden and arbitrary and challenged them in a trade court, which temporarily blocked the government’s action.

F. RULE OF LAW: 11 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4

The judiciary is generally independent and free from interference. In 2017, a judicial crisis involving then-President Khama’s attempts to reappoint justices after their fixed terms raised concerns about interference in the judiciary, but there were no controversies of that scale in 2018. However, there are calls to reform the selection and appointment processes for judges and acting judges in a way that ensures transparency, impartiality, and public oversight.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4

The right to a fair trial is protected by the constitution and generally upheld in practice. However, the judiciary lacks human and financial resources, which has led to case backlogs, which in turn results in lengthy pretrial detentions and postponement of cases. Attorneys are provided to all defendants in capital cases, but defendants in noncapital cases must pay for their own counsel. The DISS has the power to arrest suspects without a warrant if agents believe they have committed or will commit a crime.

After taking office in April, Masisi moved the DISS to the purview of the president’s office, prompting concerns about the centralization of power. It had been a part of the Justice Department previously.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Although citizens are largely protected from the illegitimate use of force, corporal punishment is imposed in some cases. Instances of police brutality have been reported, and perpetrators are rarely held accountable. Botswana still lacks an independent body to investigate police abuses.

The DISS is besieged by corruption allegations and has been accused of unlawful arrests and extrajudicial killings, among other abuses. Masisi fired its feared director, Isaac Kgosi, in May 2018, effectively canceling the five-year extension Khama had granted Kgosi before leaving office. Peter Magosi, a former head of the military intelligence service, was named the new DISS director.

Masisi in May also halted Botswana’s unwritten shoot-to-kill policy adopted by at least 2013, and possibly earlier, to deter wildlife poachers. Over the past two decades, anti-poaching operations had killed at least 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Customary law, commonly applied in rural areas, often discriminates against women. The indigenous San people tend to be economically marginalized and lack access to education and other public services including use of their language in schools, government meetings, and state media. There have been reports of beatings, abuse, and arbitrary arrests of San by police and park rangers. Botswana also has no human rights body to investigate violations.

Same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized, although law is not actively enforced and faces court challenge. LGBT people continue to experience discrimination, especially in accessing health care. However, following a High Court ruling the previous year, a transgender man in January 2018 was issued a new identity document that listed his stated gender identity.

Refugees in Botswana are detained in encampments where they are denied the ability to work and integrate into local communities. In June, police returned back to Botswana’s Dukwi Refugee Camp refugees from Namibia who were protesting outside Southern African Development Community (SADC) headquarters against repatriation plans they said would subject them to continued persecution in Namibia.

In January 2018, a number of refugees and asylum seekers at Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants alleged ill-treatment and regular assaults by prison officials, whom they further accused of failing to investigate cases of sexual assault.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 11 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

Most citizens can move freely throughout the country and travel internationally. However, in addition to the movement restrictions on refugees and asylum seekers, San have limited access to their traditional lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The government’s long-standing policy has been to relocate San out of the reserve, and those who still have relatives living there must apply for a permit to visit them.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4

Botswana has generally sound legal protections for property rights, and they are enforced in practice. However, customary law discriminates against women in property and inheritance matters; for example, a woman has no right to her husband’s property upon his death.

The country’s regulatory framework is considered conducive to establishing and operating private businesses.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

Domestic violence and rape are pervasive problems. The law does not recognize spousal rape as a crime. Customary law restricts women’s rights within a marriage. When husbands and wives separate, custody is traditionally granted to the father. Child and forced marriages still occur under customary law. However, in April 2018, Parliament passed the Penal Code Amendment Bill, which introduced stronger penalties for rape, and raised the age of consent from 16 to 18.

Women can experience harassment for not dressing conservatively.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

Workers enjoy a number of protections against exploitative labor practices. However, employer abuses in retail stores, the tourism industry, and private security sector are an ongoing problem. Botswana lacks a strong regulatory framework for labor brokers that dispatch workers to clients on short-term contracts, in which exploitation is common. Human trafficking remains a challenge. However, the four-year-old Anti-Human Trafficking Act was amended in 2018 to include stiffer financial penalties.