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Unease over Sim-card Registration Policy in Botswana

Fear and unease have spread throughout Botswana this past week, over suspicion of possible government surveillance. On Wednesday, the Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) stated its plans to continue mandating the registration of all pre-paid sim-cards as a security procedure. According to BTA Chief Executive Officer Thari Pheko, all unregistered lines will be cut off by the first of the year, 2010.

The BTA office has stated that the registration is intended to track down criminals who utilize cell phones to commit crimes. In addition, the procedure will make it easier to track down sim-card locales, thus tackling the problem of mobile theft in Botswana. Some journalists, however, see the measure as infringing on citizens’ liberties. They are concerned that the administration of the newly appointed president, Ian Khama, will step up its surveillance of digital communication in an effort to “keep tabs” on people. Khama’s administration has already expressed distrust for the media, as demonstrated by a recent draft Media Practitioners bill now under consideration, which would give the government greater control over the media.

Thapelo Ndlovu, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, fears that certain procedures of the BTA, such as sim-card registration, could be used to target media sources. He explains:

We know that we have a government that has made no secret of its disregard for the media. We have a president who on his first day dismissed the media as a trouble-maker without even acknowledging the role it plays in a democratic society. We also know that a number of organizations including unions have often complained of being subjected to surveillance by the security agents and seen under the context, one could say the system could be open to abuse.

In some respects, the alarm is a bit cursory. We do not know yet how the system of sim-card registration will affect Botswana’s security procedures or if the media will indeed be targeted. There is reason to hope that the initiative will be used in the way it is intended.

However, it is a bit unnerving to hear about infringements of civil liberties in Botswana, because the country is supposed to be the most functioning democracy in Africa. The country has been touted as an “African Miracle” because of its economic turn-around, steady GDP growth, commitment to multi-party democracy, and solid government institutions. Moreover, Botswana has largely steered clear of political corruption and graft, which so often plague its neighbors. But digital surveillance, restrictions on freedom of speech, and disruptions of media neutrality are offenses that need to be taken seriously, if they are indeed found to be taking place. Often, these kinds of infractions sneak by under the public radar. If Botswana is to retain its place as a leading African democracy, the government needs to respect freedom of speech broadly and steer clear of surveillance of its own citizens.

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One Response to “Unease over Sim-card Registration Policy in Botswana”

  1. israrali Says:

    my mobil is not sim cord registration