Reflection on Access to Information legislation in Malawi: Frustration, joy, lessons

The Access to Information (ATI) bill has finally been signed into law. Malawians have now an enabling law to fully enjoy their right to access information as enshrined in Section 37 of the Constitution. The law will also “promote transparency and accountability of public officers, increase participatory democracy and development, promote good governance, combat corruption and facilitate efficiency in public services and businesses.” The culture of secrecy about giving out public information (which people are entitled to) will be a thing of the past. It will shape and change the way people access information.

Access to Information is a legal right now

This has been a long, frustrating and tedious process that started in 1999 when NAMISA Malawi under the chairperson of Lance Ngulube held a strategic workshop at Malawi Institute of Management. Lack of access to information legislation was identified as one of the problem areas to be tackled. When MISA started implementing the Strategic Partnership Programme (SPP) in 2002, Access to Information was high on the agenda.

Consequently, an ATI bill was initiated in 2004 and a draft bill was presented togovernment. By December of that year, the bill was already presented to parliament and circulated to key stakeholders such as Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Information and the Law Commission. A number of conferences, workshops and campaign meetings were held with a broad range of key stakeholders after the launch of the bill on 14 October 2004.

Although the law has been enacted, it is slightly watered down compared to the original one. It falls short of some internationally accepted provisions for freedom of information legislation. For example, the government has removed the Independent Freedom Commission as an oversight body in favour of the Malawi Human Rights Commission.  However, it is important that Malawians are sensitised how to use the law so that they benefit from it. Equally, organisations should know it affects them. It is for everyone.

Law reform in Malawi has been a huge problem. Our parliament is frustratingly too slow to change, repeal or enact laws. Generally, there is lack of political will to change. This is exacerbated by political bickering among MPs instead of focusing on their key mandate.

When we submitted the bill to parliament through Chairperson of Committee on Media and Communications Berson Lijenda, there was high expectation that the bill would be passed within a reasonable time. At that time, President Bingu wa Mutharika was viewed as someone keen on law reform.

However, when he resigned from UDF to form DPP in February 2005, parliament degenerated into personal vendetta. Mutharika and DPP MPs were fighting for political survival as the opposition demanded that he should resign and the defected MPs to lose their seats. This stalled the passage of the bill.

However, the struggle to have the bill passed continued. Hence, many people have campaigned for the bill to be enacted into law over the years.  As someone under whose watch the bill was initiated, it is only fair and natural to single out a group of men and women who worked on the bill and tirelessly campaigned for it in the initial stages.

Professor Edge Fidelis Kanyongolo played an instrumental role in working on the original draft bill to align it with the international freedom of Information Law and also facilitated at some conferences and workshops. Emma Kaliya, former NAMISA Board of Trustees Chairperson, provided support and leadership during stakeholder meetings, workshops and conferences.

Access to Information Committee led by DrZeleza Manda(The Malawi Polytechnic), Stella Muhura, formerly of Malawi Media Women’s Association (now in USA), Alison Liwanda (now Deputy Ambassador in Kuwait) and ZioneNtaba (now Zomba High Court Judge), were part of the campaign team and sat for long hours in thefora to capture stakeholders’ views.  Hon Ntabadrafted the suggestions in legal language.

George Kayange wrote a series of articles in the Daily Times under the banner Know about Access to Information Bill to explain in detail what the bill is all about.

Lewis Msasa, former NAMISA chairperson (now with TEVETA) and Innocent Chitosi, former Information Officer (now editor Daily Times) and myself mobilised stakeholders and drove the campaign process. In the recent past, NAMISA Malawi Chairperson Thom Kanje and his team including lawyer Mandala Mambulasa kept up the pressure to ensure government passed the bill.

The fruits of all this effort is worth celebrating!

 

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Kingsley Jika
Guest

An informative presentation as far as background to this legislation is concerned. However, I find the last bit resembling Achebe’s lizard of the big ‘iroko’ tree, who, when he fell from that tall tree without bursting his stomach said he would clap hands for himself if no one else would. But still I like the background; I personally was bereft of it.

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