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ATI Bill: the journey so far and challenges ahead

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On Wednesday, December 14, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was forced to have a piece of legislation which it disliked.

Ironically, the DPP won the 2014 elections on the promise of accountability and transparency, pledging to pass the ATI. But since the DPP ascended to power, it has played every trick in the book to stifle efforts to birth the ATI.

The background

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Briefly, the journey to have the ATI law started in earnest in 2004. It was championed by the Media Institution of Southern Africa (Misa- Malawi Chapter).

The quest to have ATI was premised on Section 37 of the Malawi Constitution which states that subject to any Act of Parliament, every person shall have the right of access to all information held by the State or any of its organs at any level of Government in so far as such information is required for the exercise of his rights.

I was priviledged to be at the Misa Malawi Secretariat then as its research and information officer and was, therefore, hands on in the campaign for the enactment of the law.

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We organised a study tour to South Africa for Members of Parliament (MPs) in August 2005. Led by the then Misa Malawi Chairperson, Lewis Msasa, the MPs under the leadership of Berson Lijenda of Media and Communications Committee toured Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria cities. The other members of the delegation were the then Secretary for Information, Hawa Ndilowe and the then Solicitor General, Anthony Kamanga. The only serving MP who was on the tour is Martha Lunji from Nkhotakota.

We had discussions with MPs in South Africa, visited their human rights commission, department of government communication, mayor of the city of Pretoria, some local communities and the headquarters of the South Africa National Defence Force (Sandf).

The MPs and the government technocrats asked all the questions that bothered Malawi about the ATI. At the end of the tour, everyone was convinced that the ATI was the right piece of legislation for Malawi.

It is in the course of our campaign that we managed to have the government accept to hire Public Relations Officers (PROs) for ministries and departments. We also managed to convince the Malawi Police Service to have PROs at every police establishment to facilitate free flow of information.

The trigger was when the now defunct Chronicle Newspaper wrote a story about Thyolo Hospital which the then president, Bingu wa Mutharika, did not like. Bingu dispatched his deputy minister of information, Henri Mumba, to meet Msasa and his team, telling the media to behave or risk forfeiting prospects of having an ATI law.

The Msasa team argued that ATI was not a reward to the media for good behaviour. The team then impressed on Mumba to have PROs who could handle information at source other than waiting for Capital Hill or Area 30 to speak.

Lobbying continued in the country. We held training workshops with the Police management and top police managers, then, such as Lot Dzonzi (before he became IG) and Willie Mwaluka made several presentations.

Later, non-state actors such as the Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRRC), Active Youth Initiative for Civic Education (Ayise), the Malawi Law Society (MLS), the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and several others, including international organisations continued to work with Misa. This was under the leadership of Martines Namingha, Anthony Kasunda and the incumbent, Thom Khanje.

Misconceptions and government excuses

Throughout the campaign, we had leadership who expressed misgivings about the proposed law. Balaka North MP, Lucius Banda, argued that if someone could kill with a knife, why should he be given a gun? He was referring to the media which he believed was a bother to the government. We also had fierce critics such as Lilongwe Mapuyu MP, Joseph Njobvuyalema, who believed that the law would bring the country upside down.

Then Bingu insisted that he would only agree to the law if the media started “behaving”. But Malawians need this law more than the media do. The media still publishes in the absence of the ATI.

All these critics only helped to enrich the debate about the ATI law and they deserve credit for its passage.

Challenges ahead

President Peter Mutharika remains the biggest threat to the realisation of the ATI law. He publicly declared that he would not assent to the Bill if his amendments, which diluted the essence of the Bill, were vetoed by Parliament. The conduct of the DPP leader in the House, George Chaponda, Information Minister, Malison Ndau and their colleague at Justice, Samuel Tembenu showed that they had clear instructions to abort the Bill. But the opposition and other few well meaning DPP MPs ensured that the wishes of the common Malawian had to prevail.

What remains is for everyone, including the development partners to put up structures for implementation of this law. We have seen the fate of otherwise good laws such as the Consumer Act.

The President has a Hobson’s choice: to leave a legacy of an architect of this very important law or continue massaging his ego and deny Malawians their constitutional right to ATI.

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