Misa Malawi takes government to task over Access to Information

Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter has told government to set date for the implementation of the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Act , saying its absence is compromising freedom of expression.

Botomani addressing media gurus at the Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times
Mambulasa: It’s sad that it has taken many years without effecting ATI Act–Photo by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times

Misa Malawi national governing member Mandala Mambulasa said this on Monday during the opening of a regional conference on media freedom and democracy.

“We cannot talk about freedom of expression without talking about access to information. People can only effectively enjoy the right to free expression when they have access to credible and accurate information,” said Mambulasa.

Parliament passed the ATI in December 2016 and President Peter Mutharika assented to the law in February 2017 yet it is not operational.

Mabulasa said access to information is not only important but indispensable for the enjoyment of free expression and the sustainability of democracy.

“Access to information is not only important, but indispensable for the enjoyment of free expression, and the sustainability of democracy. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to appeal to the honorable minister to set the date for the implementation of the ATI Act. We are now about to clock three years since the legislation was enacted and assented to by the President,” Mambulasa emphasised.

Mabulasa said effective implementation of the ATI Act would help citizens to access relevant and accurate information and also help limit or counter fake news, which flourishes when people do not have access to the right information.

He further stressed that implementation of the ATI Act would promote and ensure circulation of credible and authentic information for people to make informed decisions.

Mambulasa also took advantage of the conference to remind media practitioners that the threat of dictatorship remains high in the African region and it is requiring the media to build strong institutions to nurture and safeguard the nascent democracy in the region.

“I am therefore excited that we are co-hosting this regional conference to reflect on the state of media freedom and freedom of expression, as key features of any democracy worth the name.  The conference is very important and gives us a rare opportunity to reflect on the state of democracy and media freedom and freedom of expression in Malawi and the region.

“I believe the conference will strengthen ties and networking amongst media freedom and freedom of expression advocates in the region. Such linkages are critical for stakeholders to speak with one voice and effectively counter efforts to suppress dissent and critical voices,” Mambulasa said.

In response, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mark Botomani said his office is waiting for the Ministry of Justice to formulate regulations which go with the law.

He said as soon as that is done, he would operationalize the ATI but information we have indicate that the ministry of Justice finished drafting the regulations long ago but the government is apprehensive to implement the law.

“Our commitment is that this law should be fully implemented, but we are just giving time to our colleagues in the Ministry of Justice because, as you know, this is not the only issue they are handling as a ministry. And as you know, there is a serious case in court right now that they are also pursuing. So, we are giving them time and once they are through, they will come back to us and the media will be briefed,” he said.

However, the minister refused to explicitly explain whether there was a correlation between the Presidential Elections Case and the appointment of the date for the implementation of the Act.

“I have said it before and I would like to say it again that this administration is very committed to ensuring that access to information is rolled out and is enjoyed by each and every Malawian. And as you know, this is the only government that was bold enough to take this bill to parliament. Right now, the status is that the law is in our hands as government. But what is happening is that the Ministry of Justice is developing regulations because that law requires that there should be regulations,” said Botomani.

But Mambulasa dismissed the minister’s assertions, arguing the Drafting Section in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs is not handling ‘the serious court cases’ like Botomani wanted the media to believe.

“As a lawyer, I know that the lawyers handling the Presidential Elections Case are from the office of the Attorney General. Maybe he is speaking from  different perspective, which I don’t know. So, let me giv him the benefit of doubt,” he said.

 

ATI objectives include providing people access to information from information holders and duty-bearers, ensuring that public bodies disclose information they hold and providing a framework to facilitate access to information.

The law also seeks to promote routine and systemic information disclosures, provide for the protection of persons who release information on public interest and facilitate civic education on their right to access to information.

The enactment of the law marked the end of a long process of consultations and negotiations that characterised the initial phase of concept and drafting stages.

The ATI law presents an opportunity for Malawians to exercise their right to access information. Although this right is already in the Constitution, it has been impossible for the people to exercise it because of a lack of the necessary framework and procedures for doing so.

Back to the workshop, Botomani said good journalism is a product of good journalists, saying good journalists are those that are well informed.

“Journalists must read, they must research, they must learn and they must consult,” he said.

British High Commissioner to Malawi Holly Tett said the UK remains committed to supporting the media freedom and protecting democracy in Africa.

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