President Peter Mutharika met media owners and institutions last week to discuss progress regarding the Access to Information (ATI) Bill. Media owners had been “dying” for an audience with the President to know when exactly the bill will be tabled in Parliament.
Both President Mutharika and Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Samuel Tembenu conceded that tabling the bill has delayed because of some grey areas that Cabinet is looking into.
According to Tembenu, one of the contentious issues is whether Freedom of Information Commission should be an independent entity or should be placed under a government ministry or department. The President told the audience that in Nigeria the commission is under the Attorney General’s Department.
Tembenu indicated that the commission may be under government on grounds of cost. He said under the prevailing economic conditions, it will not be ideal to have an independent commission.
Government should not reject an independent commission on the basis that the economy is now in the poor state because it is subject to change. Actually, the government should find means to fund an independent commission.
It will be unfortunate for Malawi if the commission will be placed under a government ministry or department. It should be independent of government and operate the way bodies such as the Malawi Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Ombudsman and others do. Government should be one of the players seeking information from other bodies.
If the commission is placed under government, it will seriously compromise the right of the citizens to access information. It will undermine one of the objectives of the legislation, which is to promote transparency and accountability. It is highly unlikely that such a commission can release information that government does not want its people to know.
For example, if operating under government, it will be difficult for the commission to disclose information about tender fraud or shady deals government is involved in.
Never mind that the commission can be in the Attorney General’s Department where one expects legal personnel to be impartial and operate with independence. Sometimes people in the legal profession are not always objective or impartial and act to please the government by not releasing requested information. In fact, they may even defend government for not releasing the information. Even if the commission is placed under the Ministry of Information, the situation will be the same.
If allowed to operate from government’s armpit, members of the commission, who most likely will be people with strong ties with the ruling party, will ensure that they hide information that would embarrass the government.
If Malawians are to drive maximum benefit from the access to information legislation, an independent Freedom of Information Commission is sine qua non. n