The bumpy road towards ATI: whose reality counts?


The Access to Information (ATI) Bill has in the recent weeks ignited a fierce debate characterized by finger pointing and ultimatums, more especially when it dawned upon the proponents of the bill that government was not going to table it during the current sitting of Parliament.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa-Malawi Chapter (Misa- Malawi) which has over the years championed the Bill is accusing the government of developing cold feet over the bill while on the other hand government insists that it needs a lot of time to scrunitise the bill. Joining the fray are various civil society organisations and the opposition who have blatantly accused government of being afraid to pass the ATI Bill because, according to them, it has so many skeletons in the cupboard which if brought in the limelight would put it in disrepute.

As expected, development partners have added their voice to the discourse by attaching ATI to aid!


If the ATI bill were tabled in this current Parliament meeting and later assented to by the State President, Malawi would have become that fifth Southern African country to adopt an access to information law, joining 15 countries on the continent that have specifically passed a law guaranteeing the right to access information.

Looking at the Access to Information Bill from a layman’s point of view, one cannot dispute the fact that this is one of the finest documents that Malawi has ever had. The bill once passed into an act is going to “promote transparency and accountability of public officers and officials of other information holders; increase participatory democracy and development, promote good governance, combat corruption and facilitate efficiency in public services and businesses; and provide matters connected with or incidental to the foregoing.”

And considering the extent to which this piece of legislation would guarantee people’s freedom to access information once passed into law, I am sure every Malawian would have loved if this piece of legislation were passed into law yesterday.


Whether government has taken too long or not to pass it into law is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the ATI Bill is suffering from the very same problem it intends to serve: lack of proper information from either side for efficient decision making, as situation which is creating that aura of mistrust and uncertainty. A critical examination of the current debate gives an impression that the public relations machinery that is being engaged on both sides has not been effective to the extent that it has created information lapses and at the same time misinformation with regard to some aspects that the ATI is supposed to address.

The problem with misinformation is that it can sometimes create unnecessary fears. Firstly, utterances from some proponents of ATI that government does not want to have ATI bill passed into law because it has some skeletons in the cupboard that would be exposed simply reveals some lapses with regard to civic education on what exactly the bill is all about. Unfortunately, failure by government PR machinery to articulate its position on ATI has fueled these speculations.

On the other hand, historically, government and media have not enjoyed that cordial relationship which-if truth be told- has to a certain extent created that some potholes on the road towards the ATI bill. Probably, government thinks that media has a hidden motive for promoting this bill, something akin that fairy tale where a fox volunteers to be a doctor amongst chicken. But MISA-Malawi has insisted that the bill is there to benefit all Malawians and that it is only championing the passing of the bill, an assertion which I believe must have been taken by the government with a pinch of salt. Again this also requires some good PR so that government should appreciate that media and government are partners in development.

But regardless of whoever is championing it, Malawians need ATI because in this modern era, any public institution might want to hide information but people would still get it anyway, unfortunately from the less reliable sources. With the emergence of social media there is a lot of information flying all over, some of which is based on rumors and misinformation.

Based on best practices elsewhere, it cannot be disputed that ATI has so many merits which are more beneficial to government than the media who are promoting it. In August, 2005, then as MISA-Malawi Chairperson, I had a privilege to travel with a delegation of Members of Parliament to South Africa on a bench marking tour to learn how the country was reaping from the fruits of having ATI. South Africa has what is called the Public Access to Information Act (PAIA) which was passed in 2000. PAIA aims to “give effect to the constitutional right of access to any information held by the State and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights; and to provide for matters connected therewith.” The delegation visited a good number of institutions such as the South African Defence Force; Ministry of Information; Parliament in Cape Town including the Cape Town City Council to sample how PAIA was being put into action.

The delegation noted that all these public institutions had manuals outlining policies, procedures, operating instructions and the necessary records in line with PIAI. It was observed that compliance to PAIA encouraged that an institution should have a proper quality management system.

As a result, most public institutions have ended up becoming ISO 9001 compliant. By accepting to become ISO 9001 compliant it means such institutions have committed themselves to consistently provide services/products that meet customer satisfaction or requirements and that they have accepted to enhance customer satisfaction through continual improvement.

According to International Organisation for Standardisation Organisation (ISO) Survey (2008) by December, 2008 there were 3,792 organisations which were ISO 9001: 2000/2008 compliant. Most of the institutions visited had created, kept, organized, maintained, preserved and were able to provide such information, documents or records, to those requiring them. In the end, such systems promote transparency and accountability in the way business is conducted because every South African is aware of the procedures one has to undergo in order to access a particular service or procedure, a situation that would ultimately promote efficiency and good governance and at the same time curb corrupt practices.

This is a very important aspect that should not be overlooked when conducting civic education on ATI. Basically, all that the ATI bill in Malawi is trying to address is to ensure that there is documentation of procedures in all public institutions and how such information is stored for easy access and verification. And where possible specify exclusions and the reasons thereof.

For instance, if one is to apply for a plot at Ministry of Lands and Housing, one needs to know the required procedures in order to acquire a plot? What procedures should one undergo in order to get a mining licence? If one applies for a tender and in the end you are now awarded that tender, with ATI one is able to go to that institutions to ask for records on how that tender was rewarded. The list is endless. In fact corruption thrives where there are no procedures.

Therefore, passing ATI bills just like Government adopting a quality management systems as a strategic decision that guarantees its commitment to consistently provide services or products that would meet the satisfaction of Malawians and that it is committing itself towards enhancing the satisfaction of Malawians as customers of its services and products through continual improvement of service delivery and promotion of democratic rights.

In all fairness an ideal society should be able to create, keep, organize, maintain, preserve and provide information, documents or records. This what ATI intends to promote. This is what the government needs more especially at this time when it is championing Public Service Reforms, which among others aims to promote efficiency in the way government business is conducted. So why not take the ATI as part of the reforms?

In conclusion, it has to be impressed upon all stakeholders that the train in the name of access to information has taken off. Passing may not be a problem but for it to be effective there is need for political will. Now that government has set March 31st, 2016 as the deadline for passing ATI what is needed at this point is for it to come up with a road map which should include cost implications such as cost of setting up a secretariat to oversee implementation of the access to information law, how much will be required to establish quality management systems in public institutions, what will be required to build capacity of such institutions and so on.

This road map should be discussed with all stakeholders including MISA-Malawi, civil society and development partners like EU and the like. Definitely, this is a piece of legislation that any well-meaning development partners should be able to fund if given the budget. Another critical aspect in the road map is civic education on what exactly this bill is all about. I believe organisations like National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust and Ministry of Information and Civic Education could play a crucial role in this regard.

Even public institutions themselves have to start putting in place measures that would ensure free flow of information by among others having manuals and proper records. Above all, let’s employ the rules of engagement in a diplomatic way. Threats of donor aid and ultimatums would not solve matters. Let’s strive to build Malawi to become a better place to live. Long live ATI!

*Lewis Msasa is former Misa Malawi Chairperson but is writing in his personal capacity as a citizen of Malawi.

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