Government officials are withholding information that the public is entitled to, writes Mmegi in an editorial. It is good to create PR officers in government departments, but they also need to know what is happening in their departments.

Mmegi writes in an editorial:

It is a well-known fact that in Botswana, information flow is very constricted. A lot of information is held by different government departments.

Ideally, information housed in various government departments is held in trust for the public. Unfortunately in our case, the information is seldom transmitted to the public.

There is an attitude among most civil servants that unfortunately seems to define public policy – that information should not be freely transmitted.

Civil servants and politicians tend to believe that they have monopoly over information from government in their possession by virtue of their work. As such they feel they can control the information. They decide what information to share and when not to share it and how they give it. They even want to decide how the information can be used.

It is frustrating for researchers, academics, development agents, media practitioners and even for members of the public to access what is to all intents and purposes, public information. Government officials without any set criteria have placed a tight fist on the flow of public information and somehow they unwittingly use it for control.

Information is vital for research and for empowering people to make informed choices on their daily pursuits. However, it appears government officials are not aware that they have a duty to the public – to release information. This has led to government officials branding almost any type of information as confidential. This is ridiculous.

Of course we are aware that there is information that is sensitive and for a specific time period could be termed confidential. These relate to a very narrow area and should not be abused by excitable officials who view any information as sensitive.

Often, the decision to deprive the public of vital information is left to people who are least qualified to be making such calls. In a transparent democracy, the golden rule as US President Barack Obama says should be "transparent and to be fair with the public".

We are pleased that recently the government has appointed Public Relations Officers in ministries. On Tuesday, the government convened a meeting of Public Relations Officers in government departments to find out why information flow is constricted. This might go a long way in addressing the problem of constricted information flow.

While PR offices have been created, the major problem is that they are not empowered to know what is happening in their departments. Public relations officers should not just be for window dressing. They should provide a comprehensive service to the public and the ministry they represent. Under the current arrangement, these offices are not worth the name.

* This editorial first appeared in Mmegi on 29 January 2009.