Just in July this year, government announced that the Executive would not just table, but ensure that Parliament passes the Access to Information (ATI) bill this November-December.
We know this announcement came on the back of renewed pressure from donors such as the European Union (EU), which helped to put momentum on what the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)-Malawi and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been pushing for.
I really don’t care at whose behest government made the commitment four months ago.
What matters to me is that they made a promise and are now reneging on it. In fact, the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development—probably sensing the implications of not enacting the bill on potential aid—wrote the Ministry of Information and Civic Education to fast-track the bill to Parliament, according to Treasury spokesperson Nations Msowoya.
Said Msowoya in July this year: “We have written the Ministry of Information not because we are under pressure, but because we think it is the right thing and right time to do it.”
So, what happened?
We now understand that the Peter Mutharika Cabinet—having finally found time from their busy schedules to read and consider the bill—suddenly found some inconsistencies in the proposed law that needed to be ironed out first before it goes to Parliament.
What a hoard of political gibberish and hodgepodge! This is a bill that has seen three presidents—Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) founder Bingu wa Mutharika, People’s Party’s (PP) Joyce Banda and APM’s returning DPP.
We all know that Bingu was never interested in this piece of legislation. Anything that gave the people more freedom to question him and his administration was a no-no.
This is the Bingu who so desperately panted after curtailing individual liberties that he introduced a law—the notorious Injunctions Bill—that stopped citizens from seeking court orders against decisions they considered unjust.
It was Bingu who wanted to push for a law to ban newspapers he didn’t like. It was Bingu who wanted you to pay millions to exercise your right to demonstrate. The old man literally wanted to sell our won freedoms to us. No, ATI would never have been enacted under Bingu.
Then came—by default, I must add—the donor-fearing Joyce Banda a.k.a JB, who made half-hearted attempts, mostly rhetorical, to enact the bill.
It was mainly to please donors, most of who were falling all over themselves.
Nothing came out of it, of course and so APM found the bill lying in a film of dust.
During the campaign, APM kept on promising that he would bring the bill to Parliament and work to pass it.
Both APM’s ministers of Information—Kondwani Nankhumwa who is now at Local Government and Rural Development as well as his predecessor Jappie Mhango—have made all the right noises regarding the bill, espousing the administration’s commitment to enact it.
But, again, the proposed law was thrown out of Cabinet to start another long, winded road through the corridors of the ministries of Justice and Information and more rounds of ridiculous rhetoric of how very committed they are to have the law in place. Meanwhile, voters cannot go to their members of Parliament (MPs) and district commissioners or council chief executive officers to demand and get information how their Constituency Development Fund (CDF) has been utilised.
Citizens cannot go to their local health centre to inspect how much drugs have been received and return at the end of the month to check how their drugs have been utilised.
Government talks about bottom up and demand driven development, yet they gag the only law that can enable citizens to get information necessary to participate in local governance while deepening decentralisation and giving real power to the people. Because that is what the ATI law will do: empower the people to own their development agenda and personal well-being.
The law is not for the journalist to snoop around as paranoid politicians and bureaucrats believe. Look, I have been an investigative journalist for some time and thrived without ATI law.
If I want a document, I have my means—through years of advanced training and experience—to get it.
In fact, ATI will take the shine away from investigative journalism. So, trust me, when journalists push for this law, it is not about them: it is about the little guy the politicians and bureaucrats claim to represent and work for, yet they cannot even give them the most basic of weapons for self-emancipation—the ability to access information for informed decision-making and economic participation.
This is the message that NGOs, the media and other interest groups should take to the people: that by denying you the ATI law, government wants you to remain in perpetual poverty and live in darkness—don’t let them do this to you. n