The wait has been long—almost a decade. But the coming in of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) last year raised some hope. However, the hope appears to be waning. EPHRAIM NYONDO continues the Access to Information (ATI) Bill series.
“If you have nothing to hide, there is no point to fear passing the Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law. We will run a transparent government and because we will have nothing to hide, our government will expedite the passing of ATI,” someone said that sometime in 2014.
That someone is Saulosi Chilima, and that was March 2014 at a small media briefing convened in a small room at Ryalls Hotel, Blantyre.
It was just a day after the DPP had launched its manifesto in the Southern Region — Blantyre to be precise. Chilima, then DPP’s presidential running-mate, had convened the briefing to articulate to the media some of key provisions in the launched manifesto.
Donned in all blue, from the top to the bottom, Chilima emphasised that his party, as promised in the manifesto, would expedite the passing of ATI Bill so that Malawians are informed on how they are governed.
In fact, in their manifesto, the party brought up the ATI Bill in two separate sections.
In the manifesto’s preamble, which spelled out the core beliefs of the party, they stated that ‘the DPP government will cooperate and collaborate with the civil society, non-governmental organisations and the media in the development of Malawi’ and concluded that ‘in this regard, we will pass and implement the Access to Information Bill”.
Further, in the section of media and civil society, the party wrote that “we recognise that access to information is a major challenge for the fourth arms of the state to play their important roles… in this regard, the DPP government will pass and implement the Access to Information Bill’.
Of course, there is always a belief that once elected, parties hardly return to their manifesto promise. It has not been the case with DPP and ATI Bill.
In his inaugural address, President Peter Mutharika said: “Our administration will ensure that there is access to public information and in this regard we shall cooperate with all relevant stakeholders including the media in passing and implementation of the Access to Information Bill into law”.
He did not stop there. Even during his State of the Nation address and subsequent media briefings, Mutharika was never short of reminding Malawians of his ATI Bill promise.
The president’s consistent reminders, augured by consistent words of commitment by Minister of Information Kondwani Nankhumwa, have, arguably, brought a ray of hope to Malawians regarding the passing of ATI—a Bill that has stayed close to a decade on shelves gathering dust.
However, that hope began to die down when, during the first parliamentary sitting after the tripartite elections, the Bill missed on the agenda items to be discussed.
Nankhumwa, to save government’s face, came running quickly and promised that the Bill would be presented in the September 2014 sitting of Parliament.
But when September came, Nankhumwa went public again saying the Bill had been deferred, saying it had been sent to the Ministry of Justice for further development.
In defence of the deferment, Nankhumwa was quite rhetorical.
“Is there any political will? The answer is an emphatic yes! As stated in the DPP manifesto, this government recognises that access to information is a major challenge. We will ensure that the Access to Information Bill is passed and implemented,” said Nankhumwa.
He added that his ministry had already written the Ministry of Justice to expedite its scrutiny process on the Bill.
“As to when we expect the Bill to be ready for presentation, I am not in a better position to answer that, but my colleagues from the Ministry of Justice are. And just to mention here that we have written them to fast track their work on the Bill.”
But why deferring it? Nankhumwa said since June 2014, his ministry had been engaging various stakeholders to polish up the Bill before it is finally presented to Parliament, adding the two months ‘were not enough to conclude all the processes’.
“Just after the parliamentary meeting in June, we went back to the drawing board and discovered that there were some issues that needed to be addressed. So we first engaged principal secretaries who offered their input. We also had two meetings with members of the legal and media committees of Parliament.”
“From these meetings, a working committee was set up, balanced up the suggestions and a final paper was produced. So, I can say, we (including Macra and Namisa) have finalised everything on the Bill, we are just waiting for what comes from the Ministry of Justice,” Nankhumwa stated.
The expectation by all, amidst waning patience, was that the Bill would be in Parliament during the Mid-Term Budget Review meeting in February this year. But when, again, it missed on the agenda, Misa Malawi, one of the stakeholders advocating for Bill, was riled.
In a statement signed by its chairperson Thom Khanje, Misa-Malawi openly expressed its disappointed because “ATI ranked highly in the DPP campaign and manifesto and President Mutharika also committed his administration to promote free flow of information and enact the ATI Bill.
“We therefore find government’s failure to bring the Bill in the current sitting of Parliament as a sign of laxity and lack of seriousness on the part of some officials in the present administration considering that the President has repeatedly promised to enact the Bill since he was sworn in as President in May last year,” reads the statement.
Misa-Malawi, then, appealed to Mutharika to intervene on the matter and ensure that the Bill is prepared for discussion and consideration in the present sitting of Parliament.
It added that failure by the government to bring the Bill in Parliament this time around would put into question the integrity and commitment of his administration on the Bill which is important not only to the media but also to all Malawians who are currently being denied access to a lot of basic information they need to make informed decisions and exercise their democratic and economic rights.
In fact, the sitting went and rose without ATI.
In an interview with Weekend Nation, Khanje says he expects the Bill to go to Parliament this June sitting.
“We are hopeful that all the issues that were responsible for the Bill’s failure to be presented in Parliament before have been rectified or will be rectified before June,” he says.
Nankhumwa, however, told Weekend Nation that his ministry is still waiting from the Ministry of Justice.
“We have a resource person who is urgently responding to all queries from the Ministry of Justice. All we want is to make sure that the processes are expedited and, as I have always said, we are very committed to have the Bill passed,” he said.
As we went to press, we tried to get a comment from the Minister of Justice Samuel Tembenu to find out if the Bill will be ready by June. His phones were off.
However, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice Apoche Itimu told Weekend Nation on Wednesday that the “draft department is still doing further consultations on the Bill”.
She could not commit as to when these consultations would be finalised, but assured the public that it would be as ‘soon as we can’.
The question is: How ‘soon’ is this ‘soon’? The wait, undoubtedly, still continues. n