With the advent of electronic media, the world is bombarded with loads of information every moment and if one does not know how to handle the load, one can easily fall prey to one of the worst brain disorders of modern age—information addiction.
It is quite human to ask questions. Einstein said when one stops asking the ‘why’ of anything, it is the sure sign that he is growing old. Gone are the days when bureaucrats kept information hidden under the label of ‘Government Secrets’, denying the common person their right to access information.
Today, the Internet has brought a dramatic revolution in information access. You name the information; it is available in a click of a button. Interestingly, while some people are experts at extracting the information anyhow, others are experts in hiding the information. When the game of information applies to making the government accountable to citizens who voted them into power, information tends to be a serious issue such that, depending on how it is handled, it can make or break a person.
In Malawi, we now have the Access to Information (ATI) Act to be effective from today. The Act empowers people to access public information, enabling them to keep their government in check—ensuring it is transparent and accountable to its citizens as it delivers on its expectations to the public.
Malawi adopted the ATI Policy in 2014 and gazetted ATI Bill in 2016. Along with others, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)-Malawi Chapter campaigned vigorously for the passing of the ATI Bill into law. There was time when the Bill was perceived as a media tool against the government, but through the Misa-Malawi campaign, it became clear that the law is an empowering tool for all citizens. The Malawi Constitution guarantees the right to information under Section 36 (Freedom of Press) and 37 (Access to Information). However, there was no statute in Malawi enabling citizens to exercise their right to access information held by public authorities.
The aim of this article is to understand the spirit that it holds. This Act is a strong tool for upholding the spirit of democracy. Therefore, any attempts to politicise this legislation, or use it as a weapon of blame-game, its purpose will be defeated. The mainstay of implementing this Act is to bring transparency, efficiency and integrity in government functions.
As responsible citizens of Malawi, we must have freedom guaranteed in a statute like this to question the government about its functioning as an elected Executive of democratic Malawi. The ATI Act will now allow even a layperson to ask for information held by public authorities in a prescribed procedure as per the provisions of the law. This Act will now be seen as a cleansing agent to remove the dirt of corruption, if any. When vested interest and greed for power and money supersedes the spirit of patriotism, even the best and well-intentioned legislation would easily turn into hell for the nation. Malawi in the recent past has seen many scams involving millions of kwacha and so-called sophisticated white collar criminals. These scams, such as the land scam in which the criminals would dupe high-ranking politicians and their affiliates on land allocations, or the massive plunder of public funds dubbed Cashgate, were brought to light when there were challenges of accessing the information held by public authorities. However, the Fourth Estate did a wonderful job of exposing all those who betrayed the trust of the people of Malawi.
Looking at the ATI Act with a proactive lens, one hopes it will be used as a tool to avert many more so called ‘Gates’ in Malawi in years to come. This Act directly relates to the life of a layperson as they can now legally access any public information which they feel directly impacts their life. This Act will help expose those who abuse public resources by manipulating the information held by them in various forms.
What is required is government’s seriousness to make optimum use of this legislation. There is a possibility that some may abuse it , there are always pros and cons to every legislation. But if government is serious, they must put all-out efforts and deterrents to crush the cons and strengthen the pros to uphold the true spirit of this Act.
It is hoped that the operationalisation of this Act marks the beginning of a new era where there will be greater transparency in government functions and systems, as it plays the rightful role of servant of the public.