The Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs has embarked on an exercise that will result in all public servants taking the oath of secrecy in Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).
Among other things, the oath of secrecy aims at gagging officers from disclosing any information regarding their MDAs.
The exercise has started at Capital Hill in Lilongwe where Ministry of Justice officials are conducting the oath to officers ranging from principal secretaries to drivers.
The oath also involves government officials signing a document stopping them from giving information to the public.
Some of the officers that have taken the oath have told Weekend Nation that, among other things, if one is found to have disclosed information regarding his/or her workplace he or she will be punished or dismissed immediately.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Apoche Itimu did not respond to our inquiry since Monday despite acknowledging receipt of the same.
Neither did the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu and Solicitor General Janet Banda respond when contacted through their e-mails.
But Minister of Information, Communication and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati said the exercise is taking place in all MDAs “to bring about sanity and dignity to the civil service”.
“This is normal. Every officer when taking office takes an oath of secrecy. Ministers also take the oath of office and allegiance and that is normal,” she said.
Apart from the public relations officer, no other officer in an MDA is supposed to give information to members of the public, she said.
“There are so many things that are happening in your media houses. But we have not seen or heard you writing about your media houses. Why do you want to get information from the driver or PS [principal secretary] and yet I am here as the spokesperson for government?” said Kaliati.
She said the arrangement will be the same even when the Access to Information (ATI) Bill is enacted into law.
“Only responsible persons would have authority to release information to members of the public or media and not anybody else,” she said.
Section 36 of the Constitution says the press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information and access to information.
Whereas Section 37 stipulates that subject to any Act of Parliament, every person shall have the right of access to all information held by the State or any of its organs at any level of Government as far as such information is required for the exercise of his rights.
In an interview, chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Justin Dzonzi, who is also a private practice lawyer, said if it is true that all civil servants are being asked to take the oath of secrecy, one wonders if government is committed to pass the ATI Bill.
Dzonzi said the move might be deemed as a deliberate action to breach ATI, but added that there is nothing seriously wrong with government requiring its officers not to disclose information.
He was, however, quick to say there is a level to which government as an employer can prevent its employees from disclosing information.
“People might think this is an attempt to pre-empt the ATI Bill,” he said.
Dzonzi added that all institutions including government have internal policies about information dissemination and designated officers to provide the information and disciplinary action would normally follow if an officer divulges information without authority.
“There always are levels where employees can always speak, for instance, if an employee has a grievance against the employer and the former prevents the latter from disclosing such information then effectively the labour rights of the employee would be abrogated,” Dzonzi said.
He said the ATI is aimed at addressing problems like these to make government more open, transparent and accountable.
The oath of secrecy should not be made to cover up corruption, theft and abuse of office in government.
In an interview, National Media Institute of Malawi (Namisa) chairperson Thom Khanje hoped that the Parliamentary Committee on Media would undertake a progressive review of the ATI Bill to ensure that the oath of secrecy being administered now does not undermine the ATI’s effectiveness when it is finally passed.
The Democratic Progressive Party has not kept its promise as stated in its manifesto to pass the ATI Bill two years after taking over the reins of power.
President Peter Mutharika has vehemently protested the inclusion of Section 6 (2) of the Bill which invalidates any other pieces of legislation and restricts the disclosure of information and restricts future Parliaments from passing laws which restrict the rights and obligations of the ATI law.
He is also refusing to accept the provision in Section 3 (1) which states that people would be free to demand information that came into existence even before the law was enacted.
He has declared that Section (6) of the Bill would never form part of the law as long as he is the country’s president.
Misa Malawi chapter and the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) who are some of the major stakeholders of the Bill have been pushing Parliament to pass the ATI Bill without government modifying it to suit its own interests.