If good leadership is about fulfilling one’s promises, President Peter Mutharika deserves commendation for signing the Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law.
The new law when fully implemented will fight a culture of impunity by promoting transparency and accountability.
The strategy of making great promises during elections’ campaign is one of the secrets that catapult many politicians into power.
During campaign period for high political offices, even candidates who have no clue how to implement their strategies make all sorts of promises on important issues such as education, health, economy, taxes, food security and fight against corruption.
The colourful promises hoodwink the electorate into believing that vocal politicians will improve their lives. It is only after elections that the electorate figure out that most campaign promises are simply tricks to woo voters.
When campaign promises are materialised, there is ululation that their choices were right as good leadership entails fulfilling.
In this way, Malawians have every reason to celebrate the recent political tidings. For once, there is need to salute Mutharika for fulfilling the promise he made to enact ATI law.
It is the promise which Mutharika and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) stressed in the party’s manifesto launched in February 2014.
Aptly titled Towards a People-centred Government: Prosperity, Justice and Security, the book of promises reads in part: “The DPP government will cooperate and collaborate with the civil society, non-governmental organisations and the media in the development of Malawi. In this regard, we will pass and implement the Access to Information Bill.”
True to the pledge, the ATI Bill is now a law after the National Assembly passed it and Mutharika has assented to the Bill.
Like what is happening in neighbouring Tanzania where the citizens applaud President John Magufuli when he fulfils his campaign promises, many are saluting Mutharika for endorsing the new ATI law.
Leading the bandwagon is the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Malawi).
“Misa-Malawi applauds Mutharika for signing the Bill and for fulfilling his campaign promise. The Bill Mutharika has signed reflects the views of Members of Parliament and different stakeholders who painstakingly worked on it for over 13 years. It is also in line with the wishes of many Malawians as reflected in the original draft which followed nationwide consultations,” reads the statement signed by Misa Malawi chairperson Thom Khanje.
It adds: “The Bill that Mutharika has assented to, among other things, provides for an independent oversight body to monitor and oversee implementation of the ATI legislation, provides for whistle-blowers protection and safeguards the legislation against laws that limit or restrict access. These are key provisions that underpin a good ATI regime, across the globe.”
Another organisation which has commended Mutharika for his gesture is Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf). The regional body has urged the Mutharika administration to put in place the mechanisms for implementing the new legislation.
“As PSAf, we now look forward to the full implementation of this very progressive law. We call on the President to ensure that this law does not gather dust in some shelf at Capital Hill. PSAf calls on the government to immediately put in place policies, systems and measures to support the full implementation of this law,” says PSAf in a statement signed by its executive director Lilian Kiefer.
Such praises are not surprising considering that the new law was a subject of debate in the past 15 years. Despite the assurances, Mutharika was grilled by the probing media on several occasions to explain why the Executive was dill-dallying in tabling the Bill in the National Assembly.
In January last year, he reiterated his commitment at a media briefing: “I have consistently said we will pass the Bill into law, and we will…. We will make this Bill into law because I believe it is good for the country; and because it is good for access to information to be legally protected and regulated. This Bill is going to be a law for all Malawians.”
The fulfilment of the promise generates several benefits for Malawians. Access to government records is necessary as it empowers people to monitor government activities and projects.
With ATI legislation in place, villagers will be able to freely seek information from authorities about the absence of essential drugs at their nearby health facility, should it be necessary to do so.
Councillors have now power to take to task management of city, municipal, town and district councils on why projects which received funding from central government are stalling. Contractors will be asked to give information on the reasons for constructing sub standard public structures.
In terms of promoting transparency and accountability, it will now be easier to hold government accountable. With government information easily accessible, interested parties will find it easier to track down important contacts, contracts, data and explanations. All over the world, allowing people to seek and receive public documents serves as a critical tool for fighting corruption besides enabling citizens to participate in public life, making governments more efficient, encouraging investment, and helping people exercise their fundamental human rights.
As Khanje observed recently, all citizens should be concerned with the new law because information flow allows them to participate in priority setting and decision-making. It empowers them to hold their government accountable, while assuring equal treatment and equal justice.
There are numerous examples from all corners of the world demonstrating that access to information is beneficial to all the citizens. At one point in India, a similar law led to the uncovering of how a contractor was stealing money for a clean water canal construction project. ATI law made it possible for the tricks of the contractor to be exposed which included forging the paperwork.
In Thailand, a single mother used her right to information to show that her daughter was denied a place in good public schools just because she was poor and could not afford to pay the bribes, which education authorities were demanding.
Despite ATI law guaranteeing Malawians the rights to information, freedom of expression and criticism of such rights demand corresponding responsibilities, duties and obligations.
In many professions, practitioners accept as their duty a strict adherence to the principles of confidentiality in gathering, packaging and dissemination of information. Health professionals, lawyers, bankers and even religious clerics have a duty to safeguard information of their clients in strict confidence as both their ethics and the law demand so. ATI legislation does not in any way tear apart the Codes of Ethics and Practice for such professionals.
Even amongst journalists, ethical issues of truthfulness, fairness and accuracy remain crucial as there will always be need to balance between the right to privacy, public interest and government obligation to keep some information secret.
The ATI law does not in way prevent some public officers from their obligation of keeping classified information secret. Government, for instance, cannot in the name of access to information reveal the number of jet fighters and tanks it possesses at various military facilities. Assuming that the new law has just opened every gate to all types of information is mistaken view as some laws still provide for respect of other rights such as confidentiality and privacy.
The public needs to be mindful that the new law also provides penalties for abuse of information obtained in the name of ATI.
Developing an access to information culture almost takes three stages. The passing of the law is just the first. The drafting and passage of the law may have taken almost 15 years, but experience in some countries show that, for governments, the implementation and enforcement can bring its own unique challenges.
Moving from a culture of secrecy to one of openness is no easy development. One can only hope that bureaucrats will pick a cue from Mutharika who fulfilled his promise of making ATI a reality. n
The author is the executive director of a local media organization, Centre for Solutions Journalism —Malawi