Minister of Information Gospel Kazako has defended government’s decision to hire information officers to facilitate implementation of Access to Information Act (ATIA) as a move that is in line with the new law.
The minister was speaking in Lilongwe yesterday during a stakeholders consultation on guidelines to be gazetted before the new information law is fully implemented.
He had earlier announced that the ATIA would be operationalised on September 30, but Malawi Human Rights Commission called for further consultations before implementation of the law.
The new law compels government to employ information officers who will be responsible for providing information to those seeking it, but some stakeholders felt that the move will create conflict as government already has information officers.
However, Kazako said there will be no conflict or duplication of responsibilities because information officers will be employed as middle managers within government system while public relations officers are senior officials whose job is to protect the image of their respective institutions.
He said: “The information officer will be in middle management. When they do something wrong they should know there will be a day when they will be asked. The question that we have to answer is, are PROs [public relations officers] in middle management? We are not in a crash programme, but we need to find a solution.”
Kazako said the ATIA’s regulations will be presented to Parliament for adoption before it rises next week.
The issue on recruitment of information officers took centre stage after Council for Non-Governmental Organisations (Congoma) chairperson Voice Mhone questioned the practicality of having such officers when government already has the same personnel within its system.
Meanwhile, government is in the process of recruiting information officers prior to the full commencement of the law.
It spells out functions of the information officers which include attending to any requests for information within the prescribed timeframe and facilitating the publication of information in the custody of the information holder.
Their functions will also include updating data on the website of information holder–a responsibility which Public Relations Society of Malawi (PRSM) executive member Benson Linje said can be handled by existing public relation officers.
Said Linje: “The coming of information officers may bring unnecessary tension because government ministries, departments and agencies already have information officers who can handle that job.”
PRSM, whose membership includes communication professionals in both public and private institutions, has since asked the Ministry of Information to pend the implementation of the ATIA until some of its regulations are reviewed.
On her part, Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa)-Malawi Chapter president Teresa Ndanga called on government to clearly spell out the differences in responsibilities for information officers and public relations officers.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) chairperson Reverend Patrick Semphere acknowledged in an interview that the issue is long overdue and that its implementation needs to begin now.
He said MHRC has also been allocated K150 million in the proposed 2020/21 National Budget for the implementation.
According to Semphere, the commission’s major responsibilities will be to conduct sensitisation meetings on the law so that people understand what the new law is all about.
Some of the regulations to be gazetted border on processes of disclosure of information, actual processes for information seeking as well as procedures which need to be followed when the information seeker has not received information sought.
ATI was passed in 2016 but was awaiting a Minister of Information to set the date for its operationalisation. Kazako gazetted the law early last month and set September 30 as the date for its operationalisation.