There is a sense of relief among democratic Malawians following the announcement that President Peter Mutharika has assented to the Access to Information (ATI) Bill. Not that the President has done Malawians any special favour but because there was a clear lack of political will on the part of the Mutharika administration to pass a wholesome bill.
It has been a long and arduous 13 year journey to the actualisation of the ATI Bill. The campaign for its enactment has been through all the four political administrations in the multi-party Malawi.
The trepidation this time resulted from the public declarations that the President had been making that he would veto the bill if it did not contain what his administration wanted. And the government side in the House employed all tricks to further delay the passage of the bill but the opposition bloc stood its ground and the legislation was passed.
The rest is history.
Throughout the journey towards the Act, opponents of the law argued that it would give the media undue latitude to haunt those in authority. Successive political administrations have also posited that the media had to demonstrate some level of loyalty before the bill became law.
But this piece of legislation is not a reward to the media for good behaviour. Even a statement from the Ministry of Justice which announced the enactment of the bill repeatedly asked the media to use the law professionally. That is where we are diving at shadows.
Individual Malawians need the bill more than the scribes. In fact the Malawi media has thrived for over a century without the bill. The media has been able to uncover Cashgate, Maizegate, Tractorgate, Jetgate, Oilgate and all other gates in the absence of this law.
The law is a result of the wisdom of framers of our Constitution who, ironically, included the President himself. They learnt from our history where those in authority would decide what information to dole out to us and when.
The bitter lesson in such an environment has been that some greedy minds have corruptly dipped their dirty fingers in public coffers, saddling the struggling tax payer with more responsibilities. Because they decided what we had to know, they managed to use technicalities of existing laws to get away with murder, so to speak.
This is an enabling law to Section 37 of the Republican Constitution that gives every person a right to access information held by the state or any of its organs. It is in line with modern and progressive democratic tenets of transparency and accountability. Elsewhere, people are proud to be transparent and predictable by calling their localities “Sunshine States”. The essence being that the sun “never sets” and government offices are accessible and transparent.
This is the law which is in line with the public sector reform programme that the current administration flaunts. It will empower ordinary Malawians to hold duty bearers accountable. It will give meaning to school or hospital management committees. The committees which largely comprise local residents, will be able to follow up on supplies and deliveries thereby saving the central government the headache of buying the same things again and again.
Residents will be able to do budget tracking and identify gaps in the system. It will concretise the decentralisation programme of the government where ownership and responsibility of public programmes devolve to the residents.
If residents have a sense of ownership, they will stop venting their anger on helpless sign posts which take the punches on behalf of the Capital Hill. People will no longer consider government as the exploiting big brother who bullies his way through to his goals.
While we applaud the President for honouring the wishes of the people, we should not lose sight of the need to put systems and structures for effective implementation of the ATI bill. Key to this is management of information at all levels. It will not make sense to waste 13 good years on the campaign only to see the law gathering dust on Capital Hill shelves.
So, forget about all that unsolicited advice to the media to behave. It is just that an old man becomes uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a parable.
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