It is good that President Peter Mutharika has finally assented to the long-awaited Access to Information Bill (ATI) but this should not be cause for boasting for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration that APM is fulfilling his campaign promises. Far from it.
Great we now have the ATI law. And you always celebrate when you win a battle. But APM has assented to the bill because he had to after his bid to butcher it failed miserably. Malawians have not forgotten that after APM had promised during the campaign period to pass the ATI Bill in its original form, he later told the nation that ATI would only go to Parliament when the “inconsistencies” he is not happy with are first addressed. He also warned that should Parliament pass the Bill while it is cobwebbed with what he saw as inconsistencies, the nation should rest assured that he would veto it.
What APM was arrogantly describing as inconsistencies in the Bill was, among other things, the inclusion of Section 6 (2) of the bill which invalidates any other pieces of legislation. The clause restricts future Parliaments from passing laws which restrict the rights and obligations of the ATI law.
For the record, 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.
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.
APM wanted an ATI law to be fashioned according to his wish—a useless law that does nothing other than maintain the status quo where government chooses what to give out, etc.
For starters, the ATI is aimed at making government more open, transparent and accountable and in so doing enhance protection of State resources by empowering the public, the media in particular to be able to legally force government officials and institutions to release information deemed to be of public interest.
By removing Section 6 (2) from ATI, APM was attempting to block all these efforts to make government more open, transparent and accountable. In short he was diluting the bill.
Last year when donors made the enactment of ATI law a condition for their resumption of direct budget support Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe apparently jumped the gun and promised the bill would be tabled in the next sitting of Parliament. Was it? Good ole Gondwe was at his wits end.
Again not long ago, government embarked on an exercise of administering the oath of secrecy to all civil servants so that they do not disclose government information. Government officials hold their positions on trust and the oath was likely to be deemed as a deliberate action to gag them so as to cover up corruption, theft and abuse of office in government.
Government should be reminded that there is need to strike a balance between disclosing information that will stop fraud and abuse of public trust and stopping them from disclosing government secrets. The oath of secrecy should not be made to cover up corruption, theft and abuse of office in government.
So APM’s reluctance to pass the bill in its original form following his decision to have it diluted should still create fear that implementing the provisions of the Act will not be an easy ride.
One can only hope that the Parliamentary Committee on Media which reviewed the ATI bill and the Human Rights Commission which were part of the vetting did a good job of ensuring that the oaths do not breach the ATI provisions and other constitutional rights.
So what Information Minister Nicholus Dausi is saying that APM deserves a pat on the back for keeping his campaign promises should be taken with a pinch of salt. If anything, there is still a lot to be done to implement the provisions of the Act. APM’s commitment to uphold his promise will be tested by the manner he and his government facilitate the wholesale implementation of the provisions of the Act. Among these is the establishment of the Independent Information Commission that is provided for in the new law. We don’t want to hear government does not have money for the commission.