Chakwera- Chilima earn CSOs’ praise for Access to Information Act: Concerns over Official Secrets Act

A consortium of seven non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has hailed President Lazarus Chakwera  and his deputy Saulos Chilima for proving their commitment to  operationalizing the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Act which  provides for the right of access to information in the custody of public bodies and private entities contracted by the government.

President Chakwera and Vice President Saulos Chilima -pic by Lisa Kadango 

However, the NGOs have urged the Tonse Alliance government to swiftly deal with retrogressive laws that tend to limit the enjoyment of access to information.

The NGOs include Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), National Anti-Corruption Alliance (NACA), Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC), Malawi Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Affected by HIV and AIDS (MENERELA+), Outreach Scout Foundation (OSF), NGO Coalition on Child Rights (NGOCCR) and Centre for Youth and Children Affairs (CEYCA).

They emphasize that, to complement the ATI Act, government needs to promote other transparency initiatives, such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from national and subnational governments to promote open government, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

They further state that operationaling the ATI Act is not enough, saying Malawi remains saddled with laws that limit the enjoyment of access to information.

“We observe that there are still numerous statutes in Malawi, some dating back to colonial times, which promote government secrecy and withholding of public information. For instance, under section 4(1) of the Official Secrets Act (Cap 14:01), every person is prohibited from disclosing a wide range of information, including any official information which the person has accessed by virtue of working in government.

In our view, the aforementioned section defeats the purpose of Malawi’s Access to Information Act, 2017 whose main objective is to improve the flow of information from the government to citizens and ensure that citizens access the information held by government,” the NGOs say.

They say whereas Malawi is commended for joining the OGP in 2013, the process of designing the second National Action Plan (NAP) has delayed.

The Malawi OGP End-of-Term Report issued on 26 May 2019 stated that “Although the government established the National OGP Steering Committee, consisting of government, civil society and private sector representatives to monitor the action plan’s implementation, it did not meet during the implementation period.

The NGOs have also called upon the Tonse government to start moving towards harmonising all laws with Constitutional provisions, emphasizing that Malawi should take advantage of the ongoing reform process to re-align laws with the Constitution and move to repeal all provisions that promote government secrecy and withholding of public information, as the continued existence of these laws will hamper the citizens’ ability to access information held by public officials that is of public interest.

“The right of access to information is essential for the promotion of human rights, democracy, transparency and accountability. Allowing people to seek and receive public information serves as a critical tool for fighting corruption, enabling citizens to more fully participate in public life, making governments more efficient, and helping persons exercise

On its part,  Misa Malawi has reiterated its call to government to allocate enough resources to the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) to effectively enable it carry out its oversight role.

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