Hon Folks, the gazetted Access to Information Bill is grossly adulterated and, if passed by Parliament, will only guarantee access by the public to the same kind of information government already buys advertising space for.
Such information, provided for in part III of the Bill, comprises of manuals, policies, rules.
Other than that, access to any other information is pretty much discretionary. Unless government wants you to have it, there are, so to speak, a hundred and one bureaucratic booby-traps to ensure you don’t access what the people in government want to keep under wraps.
For example, the information you are looking for can simply be declared unavailable
And where it’s available, it’s holders will have to first check with third parties who may be affected by the disclosure of such information. Obviously how fast that process can take will depend on who the so-called third parties are in government.
They will also have to consult other institutions with “greater interest” in the same information you are seeking. Again, here, the pace with which the information holder will approach the institutions will depend on which institutions they are dealing with.
If it’s the presidency, the Cabinet, the Army or the Police, chances are that the information holder, if they go at all, will do so crawling, not jog-trotting, lest the speed be construed as a mark of solidarity with the one trying to expose skeletons in the cupboard.
The outcome of such internal consultations within government may result in partial or outright denial of disclosure of the information you were looking for.
But evens where disclosure is granted, Lord have mercy on the millions of Malawians who are too poor to even feed themselves; access to public information through ATI isn’t for free. If you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it.
And if government or its agents choose to play monkey tricks with the disclosure of public information, the only remedy the adulterated Bill offers is through the courts, the High Court to be precise. That entails hiring a lawyer and paying exorbitant legal and administrative fees. How many Malawians can afford that?
The ATI Bill in its current form raises the barrier of access to public information by ordinary Malawians while pushing to the level of untenable the instrument for holding government accountable if it chooses to deny members of the public access information.
Yet, if passed, the Bill becomes an enabling Act for two provisions in the Bill Of Rights part of the Constitution. The first provision, which is not even mentioned anywhere in the Bill obviously because the APM government is so averse to it, is free press. The section reads:
“The press shall have the right to report and publish freely, within Malawi and abroad, and to be accorded the fullest possible facilities for access to public information.”
Free press, unlike the regulated one as existed in the one party era, is known by its watchdog characteristic, exposing abuse of power or betrayal of trust by those entrusted with public office or sovereign authority.
In the original ATI draft Bill, this interest was catered for by several provisions including the following which are missing in the gazetted Bill: protection of whistle blowers, the supremacy of the public interest to the right to privacy and the creation of an independent Information commission to expedite the processing of requests for access to public information.
The other constitutional provision, which is mentioned in the ATI Bill, is section 37 which reads:-
“Subject to any Act of Parliament, every person shall have the right of access to all information held by the State or any of its organs at any level of Government in so far as such information is required for the exercise of his rights”
The adulterated Bill is meant to hem the parameters within which access to information can reasonably be exercised.
Virtually every democracy has information which is kept under lock and key as state secrets. What is strange with the ATI Bill is that, apart from the ill-defined parameters government employees can use to block requests, it has also given them the power to deny granting access if, in their opinion, the reason for requesting such information is “malicious, frivolous or vexatious.”
In addition, if the public information given is used for reasons other than that for which it was requested– even if such reasons are not “malicious, frivolous or vexatious”–the Bill imposes a K2 million fine and imprisonment for two years.
See why the ATI is unacceptable in its current form?