Media bodies welcome positive ‘trade-off’ as Botswana amends spy bill

The government of Botswana has made alterations to the new Criminal Procedure and Evidence Bill in what a coalition of media practitioners has called a positive “trade-off”.

Initially, the law sought to give the state powers to intercept communication and force disclosures to state intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

But solidarity from a coalition of Southern African journalism organisations with Botswana’s Editors Forum (BEF), the Press Council of Botswana, MISA Botswana, the Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), and the WAN-IFRA Media Freedom Committee pushed the government back for a re-think of the draconian law.

“From a Bill that threatened media freedom, Botswana now has one that regulates covert investigations. It is not perfect, but – if implemented properly – can have positive effects,” said the CFE’s Anton Harber.

The amendments by the government removed clauses that allowed state security agencies to spy on citizens as and when they wanted without a court warrant for up to two weeks.

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To guard against violations, the law will seek to criminalise abuse of the spy bill by law enforcement agencies. Perpetrators could face up to life in prison.

For the Bill to be put into use, a new Controlled Investigations Coordination Committee will be set up as a regulator headed by a judge.

Its mandate would be to impose administrative sanctions, award compensation, issue and follow up enforcement procedures.

The committee’s decisions will have the same effect as a judgment of the court.

Spencer Mogapi of BEF believed the law is still skewed towards assaulting personal liberties, but is a step in the right direction.

“In our view, this is not a perfect Bill, but we are prepared to live with it as part of a trade-off that citizens make in a democratic society to help the state fight modern-day crimes like financial terrorism and money laundering,” he said.

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Botswana is one of the beacons of democracy in Africa but through the initially proposed Criminal Procedure and Evidence Bill, critics said the country was replicating totalitarian tendencies.

The coalition of Southern African journalism organisations, which had gone as far as seeking meetings with government ministers and the head of state, said the government reacted with good character.

“We appreciate that the government heard the concerns and quickly made changes to improve the Bill. It is a very positive sign when governments respond in this way,” said Harber.

Last year Reporters without Borders (RSF) ranked Botswana the 39th country in its World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) in 2020 out of 180 countries, recording an improvement of five places compared to 2019.

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