From the speeches, messages on placards, the songs that over 200 journalists sang as they held the freedom march on the streets of the lakeshore district, and even during a debate for the 580-member media body, the journalists sent one clear message to government: Bring the ATI to Parliament. The message was echoed by the diplomatic corps and the civil society.Calls for Parliament to pass the Access to Information (ATI) Bill topped the agenda at this year’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) commemoration in Mangochi yesterday.
Delivering a keynote address during the Namisa Awards Gala Night at Sunbird Nkopola, Nation Publications Limited (NPL) chief executive officer Mbumba Banda said despite efforts by successive Misa-Malawi regimes and promises by successive governments, Malawi still does not have an ATI legislation.
She wondered why politicians always seem uneasy with the legislation.
“This is something I have always failed to understand, because if our leaders really understood and appreciated that they hold their positions on behalf, and on the sustained trust of all Malawians, there should be no qualms with making necessary information available to the same masses they purport to serve,” said Banda.
She stressed that the Bill is not for the media, but for Malawians that vote in leaders who swear to serve and represent them.
“There is simply no excuse because passing this piece of legislation is not a favour, but a call to duty,” said Banda.
In a speech that also highlighted the importance of more journalism training, media vibrancy and creativity of emerging social media and online publication challenges, Banda observed that hiding information does not help as it creates a vacuum.
Her words were echoed by the National Commission for Unesco executive secretary, Francis Mkandawire, Namisa chairperson Thom Khanje and the public affairs officer in the US Embassy, Edward Monster, during a debate earlier in the day.
Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Information Communications and Technology and Civic Education Justin Saidi assured journalists that the Bill will be tabled at the next sitting of Parliament.
“And it will be passed,” said Saidi.
Mkandawire observed that the major obstacle to open access to information was the overreach in government secrecy, which can only change course with passage of the Bill.
He said it was crucial for journalists to safely access and produce information both online and offline.
Monster said the Embassy was impressed with the level of freedom of expression in Malawi and the work of the media in general.
He said he had lived and worked in several countries and he had not found the media to be as free and open and as able to conduct their investigative journalism as in Malawi.
“I would say internationally speaking, comparatively, Malawi is doing pretty well. For instance, on World Press Freedom Index Malawi is number 66 out of 180 countries worldwide that is very good and the entire Malawian society should be proud of that though it has slid by seven places from 59 last year,” he said.
However, Monster said that was something to keep an eye on and ensure that the media in Malawi has the freedom it needs to be able to keep government and society in check and ensure democracy works as it should be.
On his part, Khanje said while journalists are fighting for the Bill to be passed, it should be taken to Parliament in its original form.