Civil society activists are questioning the high ranking of Botswana on the Mo Ibrahim Index for Good Governance that was released this week.
This follows several incidents adversely affecting the media in the country, dating back to the election of President Ian Khama in 2008.
Botswana, which celebrated its 48th anniversary of independence from Britain on Tuesday, was ranked third out of 52 countries surveyed by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
The index is based on four categories, including safety and rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development.
South Africa ranked fourth on the index, with neighbouring Zimbabwe 46th and Zambia 13th.
Zoe Titus, the regional director of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa), speaking from Namibia, said her organisation disputed the ranking because the Botswana government was increasingly restricting basic freedoms of expression and was unwilling to engage civil society organisations in the country.
“People have the perception of Botswana as the freest, most open and democratic society, but free expression is getting substantively shallow on a daily basis,” she said.
In the latest attack on the media in Botswana, the Sunday Standard editor Outsa Mokone was arrested last month and charged with sedition following an article in the newspaper about Khama’s alleged involvement in a car crash.
Khama, who still uses the title of lieutenant general, once appeared on the popular British programme Top Gear and is known for his love of fast cars. The allegation was vehemently denied by the presidency.
The reporter, Edgar Tsimane, who is being sought by the Botswana government over the story, has fled to South Africa and has been granted temporary asylum.
According to Titus, Misa will defend the journalists in court, as it has done in many similar cases. “Litigation is often the only avenue open to us,” she said.
Misa is also fighting against the controversial Media Practitioners Bill in Botswana, which requires all journalists to be accredited by a government-controlled board.
According to Titus, the clampdown on civil society organisations has reduced their engagement with the government to a near minimum. Communications have, for example, been cut off with organisations such as the Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Ditshwanelo, which has campaigned for many years about issues such as the death penalty and the rights of the almost-forgotten San community in Botswana.
“Botswana doesn’t have the same history as the other countries in Southern Africa that are ruled by former liberation movements,” Titus said. “But it acts in exactly the same way with its vicious attacks on civil society.”
Khama’s ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has governed the country since independence, is widely expected to win elections later this month.
A group of six senior MPs of the BDP broke away from the party in 2010, claiming that democracy in Botswana has been threatened since Khama came to power. It was the first split in the BDP and some believed the move would weaken the ruling party.
But Khama weathered the storm and remains popular, thanks to generous social grants and a relatively stable economy.
In 2012, a group of smaller parties also formed a united opposition, the Umbrella for Democratic Change, but commentators say it has a slim chance against the BDP.
Steven Gruzd, a senior researcher at the Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg, said Botswana presented itself as a “well-ordered and placid” country, but sensitive issues such as the rights of the San were being neglected.
Gruzd said Khama would benefit from the advantage of incumbency to win the polls later this month.
“Incumbents generally make sure they win elections,” he said.
Gruzd is head of a programme that deals with the African Peer Review Mechanism, a survey conducted by African specialists with the input from countries, in conjunction with the African Union.
Botswana is as yet not a member of the AU’s Peer Review Mechanism, which has 34 members, 17 of which have completed their reviews.
Gruzd said the Mo Ibrahim Index could be useful for its quantitative value but comparing all African countries to one another was problematic.
Out of the top five countries, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana, South Africa and Seychelles, three are small island countries.
“If you count the populations of these countries together, how many millions is that?” he asked, contrasting that figure with the estimate of 1.1-billion people on the continent.