Hon Folks, last weekend Malawian journalists were in Mangochi celebrating their press freedom which remains entrapped in the Constitution.
Minister Patricia Kaliati, whose information portfolio becomes superfluous in democracies where genuine free press exists, graced the occasion as a harbinger of bad news from the government she speaks for.
There’s the ATI Bill her government has carefully cobbled and gazetted. Nothing that resembles a draft ATI Bill that emanated from a rigorous consultative process by stakeholder representatives from government, academia and development partners.
Rather, it’s a Bill that, in the eyes of APM and his cronies, best shields those in government from the prying eyes of these ungrateful journalists who have equated free press with government-bashing.
Journalists, in turn, have unequivocally rejected the government version of ATI Bill, describing it as “adulterated”. The civil society too have said no to the Bill which simply legalises the status quo, allowing government to withhold from the media and public virtually any public information it does not want leaked.
The government versions of ATI Bill is conspicuous for the many excuses government has given itself for delaying, vetting, rejecting and restricting even legitimate uses of the public information it is constitutionally required to give.
In turn, the only thing it guarantees the public is the right to ask government for public information. If government says no, the only remedy is going to court, which will require hiring a lawyer at K45 000 or more per hour!
Or, what is the alternative, Legal Aid? It’s on record that they’ve virtually closed due to lack of funding. Read my lips, if the grossly under-funded Legal Aid Department were to handle ATI cases against government pro bono, it would most certainly attract “financial sanctions” which would aggravate its funding woes.
Yet Kaliati travelled to Mangochi to urge the journalists who have waited for ATI for 21 years now to embrace the government’s version of ATI or prepare to wait until 2024.
Why 2024? It’s a loaded statement which arrogantly assumes APM will sail through the 2019 elections come rain, come sunshine, the kind of corrupt political mentality that breeds intransigence, impunity and intolerance, factors that militate against the interests of transparency and accountability.
While at the World Press Freedom Day function in Mangochi, Kaliati echoed APM’s song about Malawian media being too negative by ignoring government’s achievements.
The truth is that there’s hardly anything government does which goes uncovered by the media. MBC slavishly chases the so-called positive story at the expense of balance but what’s newsworthy about government that MBC only covers? The truth is there’s very little of the positive story to tell.
If government is honest with itself, it just have to listen to feedback from any institution which does not feed on its palm—international community, NGOs, leaders of faith communities, etc. Even the Pastoral Letters authored by Catholic Bishops list few achievements and a litany of failures. So, why blame the messenger?
Section 36 of the Constitution stipulates: “The press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and shall be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information [emphasis mine]
Let Kaliati or Minister of Justice Samuel Tembenu point one thing in the adulterated ATI Bill that comes anywhere closer to according the media “fullest possible facilities for access to public information.” n