Public officers tactically shunning ATI implementation

Access to Information (ATI) Act continues to be a thorn in the flesh of public officers in local councils, as evidenced by tactics public officers employ to evade and/or ignore requests for information on matters of public interest.

In Lilongwe and Salima, for instance, civil society and community leaders have complained that their requests for information on procurement and disposal of assets have landed on deaf ears.

The leaders made the sentiments during a virtual review meeting on open contracting.

CHRR programme officer Charles Baduya

The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) organized the virtual meeting in conjunction with Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC).

CHRR is a human rights non-governmental organization in Malawi while AFIC is a Uganda-based largest membership pan-African civil society organization and resource centre that promotes citizens right of access to information (ATI) in Africa.

The two organizations are implementing a “From Disclosure to Impact: Deepening and Broadening Open Contracting” project and the review meeting was organized to learn what has been done to-date, including successes and challenges following a training that was held on April 28th and 29th, 2021 to build capacity of CSO members on information requesting and contract monitoring.

CSO leaders from Salima reported that, so far, they have made five information requests the council where some officers refused to receive the information requests orally, while the law mandates that they respond in writing, while others made referral to another institution orally.

“There has been no change since the law took effect. We are still being denied information on crucial matters, including procurement of materials for various development projects taking place in our areas,” they complained.

From the discussion, it was clear that public officers are deliberately refusing to provide with an intent to conceal their underhand dealings.

In a separate interview, CHRR programme officer Charles Baduya said mute refusals could be a sign that either public officers are not aware of ATI regulations or lack of awareness on their roles and responsibilities in the implementation of the law.

“Others are not aware of the ATI regulations. We also noted that there’s awareness gap among public officers and the public on ATI Law. Citizens do not know what action they can take to force the public officers to release the information,” he said.

Baduya stated that although most districts have appointed the information officers, the appointed officers have not been trained in their roles and responsibilities.

He said it is high time the Malawi Government- through the Malawi Human Rights Commission – to scale up awareness campaign on ATI.

“This would help enhance transparency and accountability in the public service. We need to orient public officers on their obligations in the implementation of the ATI Law,” he said.

During the review meeting, CHRR and AFIC told CSO and community leaders the steps they need to take in the event that their requests have been ignored or denied.

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