Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) says one of the critical enablers of citizen’s participation in policy and lawmaking is access to information.
This was a key finding in a study the centre conducted early this year which also revealed deficiencies in public participation in law and policymaking in the country.
It also found out that although public participation is currently more open than during the one-party era, actual participation is still sporadic.
Reads the study findings report in part: “This is mainly due to government agencies’ top-down approaches, inadequate publicity of policy and legislative processes, capacity gaps in civil society and low levels of literacy that inhibit a grasp of policy procedures and what the policy implies.
“The study further found out that some State agencies are inconsistent in respecting instruments such as the Constitution, statutory laws, policies and multilateral initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership [OGP] and recognise the right of citizens to participate in legislative and policymaking processes.”
The report said access to information is a critical enabler to citizen’s participation in policy and lawmaking process.
Malawi adopted the Access to Information Act (ATI Act in December 2016, partially fulfilling the OGP National Plan Action (NAP)’s commitment to freedom of information. The Act was operationalised on September 30 2020.
But the report found that despite this law, Malawi still faces various challenges in ensuring access to public information due to high illiteracy levels, high Internet costs, a culture of apathy and unwillingness to release information by public officials and the existence of laws that promote government secrecy and withholding of public information.
Such laws include Official Secrets Act [Cap 14:01] and Mines and Minerals Act, 2018 which prevents individuals from accessing information on mining companies.
Among others, it recommended to government to ensure effective and robust implementation of ATI and other existing legal frameworks.
In an interview yesterday, CHRR executive director Michael Kaiyatsa said the overall aim of the study was to identify key gaps and challenges facing civic participation in law and policymaking processes in Malawi.
He said, among others, the study focused on examining the extent to which existing regulatory frameworks provide an enabling environment for public participation in law and policymaking at national and local government levels.
Said Kaiyatsa: “We wanted to identify the gaps and practical obstacles that hamper public participation in law and policy formulation and opportunities to enhance effective civil society engagement in governance and decision-making processes.”
University of Malawi political and governance expert Ernest Thindwa said he was not surprised by the report findings as the gap between policy and practice is wide.
“So the problem is not the law, but managerial arrangement. People are not doing what they are supposed to. Unless there is enforcement, nothing will change,” he said.