Malawian journalists yesterday joined their counterparts across the globe in commemorating World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) with renewed calls for implementation of the Access to Information (ATI) Act passed by Parliament four years ago.
The ATI Act has not rolled out despite Parliament passing it in December 2016 and President Peter Mutharika signing it into law in February 2017.
In a statement yesterday on the occasion of WPFD commemoration, Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter chairperson Teresa Ndanga described the ATI as a key component of media freedom and freedom of expression.
She said it would be important that the Minister of Information, Civic Education and Communications Technology sets the commencement date for the ATI Act to allow Malawians— not only journalists—enjoy ease of access to information and hold duty-bearers accountable.
Said Ndanga: “Malawians cannot effectively enjoy free expression without access to accurate and credible information. This right is even more critical with the outbreak of covid-19 and proliferation of fake news.”
In the statement, she also called on government to, among others, free taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) from political interference that has affected operations of the two institutions.
While commending journalists for aligning themselves to professional standards of practice and code of conduct during the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections and for spearheading the revival of the Media Council of Malawi (MCM), Ndanga urged journalists to work professionally and avoid any commercial interests.
In a separate message posted on his Twitter page, the country’s estranged Vice- President Saulos Chilima urged the media to continue playing its role of offering checks and balances to the government.
He said: “Today May 3, I join all journalists and the media fraternity in commemorating World Press Freedom Day. As a fourth estate, continue offering checks and balances to the Executive.
“In the words of Thomas Jefferson, between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I too would not hesitate a moment to the latter.”
On his part, United Nations (UN) General Secretary Antonio Guterres, said the press provides an antidote of verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis.
In his statement, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mark Botomani also urged journalists to report in a balanced way without favouring anyone, mostly opposition political parties.
The minister said progress has been made on the ATI Act pending final stages to roll it out.
Ironically, Botomani’s statement has in the past been disputed by stakeholders involved, including Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC).
“The steering committee comprising the Ministry of Information, Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and the Malawi Human Rights Commission [MHRC], finalised the guidelines and regulations,” claimed Botomani in the statement.
However, in November last year, MHRC said they already drafted the regulations and submitted to Ministry of Information while the ministry then said the regulations were awaiting direction from Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
On the other hand, the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs said it was waiting for the Ministry of Information to advise on commencement date.
During the opening of a regional conference on media freedom and democracy in Lilongwe in November last year, Misa Malawi national governing council member Mandala Mambulasa, a lawyer by profession, also asked Botomani to set a date for implementation of the Act.
In January 2014, Cabinet approved a Policy on ATI before it was passed and the president signing it into law. But Botomani and his predecessor Henry Mussa, have been claiming that appointing a commencement date for the ATI awaited approval of regulations which were with the Ministry of Justice.
In his statement on the WPFD, Botomani also called on journalists that while they are not supposed to fear governments, they must strive to be professional.
The minister also claimed that under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, no journalist has been arrested, tried and convicted for doing their work.
But in January this year, police at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) arrested Nation Publications Limited (NPL) journalist Golden Matonga and a Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) crew of Steve Zimba and Francis Chamasowa.
The journalists were apparently arrested for trying to take photographs at KIA’s Very Important Persons’ (VIP) section as a European Union (EU) Election Observer Mission (EOM) arrived in the country for what turned out to be a suspended plan to present its final report on the disputed May 21 Tripartite Elections.
WPFD is celebrated on May 3 annually since its proclamation by the UN General Assembly and provides an opportunity for journalists to celebrate their achievements and discuss challenges affecting them.
This year’s WPFD was celebrated under the theme Journalism Without Fear or Favour.
This year’s WPFD commemoration was muted due to restrictions to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic