In case you missed it, adding colour to the glamour and glory of the Malawi Media awards at the celebration of the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) in Mangochi, was a heavyweight contest.
Fighting from the blue corner was the Minister of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education Hon Patricia Kaliati MP, representing the Executive Branch of Government.
Her opponent, in the common folks’ corner, was the media fraternity represented by the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapter and the Media Owners Association.
Before I give you a blow by blow account of the bout, with your leave, a brief background will bring you all on par.
Following years of advocacy for an ATI law, Malawi chalked some points by registering progress towards enacting an Access to Information Law.
The prerequisite Access to Information Policy and Bill went through various stages of consultation, before submission to Cabinet.
The resultant bill was so splendid that a Canadian-based media institute ranked it 15th best in the world, a rare honour that Malawians ought to celebrate.
In theory, for two good reasons, the bill should have faced no huddles.
Firstly, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), if its Campaign Manifesto is anything to go by, was just “dying” to pass this long overdue bill.
Secondly, amongst the stakeholders consulted were technocrats, the Cabinet Committee on media, Ministry of Justice Gurus etc. In short,the Executive participatedin the consultations.
However when the draft Bill was tabled before the Cabinet, the DPP grew cold feet. All the appetite, the hunger and the craving for this bill to be tabled in Parliament and enacted into law suddenly disappeared.Chibaba chonse, balala!
Apparently,it contained elements (referred to by the Executive as anomalies) deemed contradictory to the supreme law of the land: the Republican Constitution. The Ministry of Justice gurus, it appears, had beensleeping throughout the consultations! Too tired I guess, after drinking one too many at Bwandilo and pa Kamba.
To fix this, the President or is it the Cabinet, took to surgical masks and scalpels and went about operating on the poor bill.
From the look of things, they did not bother to use any anaesthetic at all. Because what came out of the surgery is something its original framers hardly recognise.
Among other things, a bit requiring ordinary people – who can barely afford fertiliser if the Fertiliser and Input Subsidy Programme is anything to go by – to “buy information” was patched in.
As if that was not enough, the bill was then subjugated to the Official Secrets Act.
The hapless bill, now writhing and groaning, pleaded for mercy, begging:
“Abale, ndalakwa chani?”
That was, as we say in the vernacular, kuwonjezera chanzi kununkha i.e. adding salt to an injury, worse was to come!
AnIntravenous Infusion, bloated with fines and jail sentences for undefined “abuse” of information, was injected into the now helplessbill.
As a double deterrent,the already dominant Minister of Information was given even more power.Munthu otemera mangolomera a nyesi, nkudzamuwonjezeraponso mangolomera a mavu nkhomola! Mungalimbe? Mulimba?
You wouldthink they would stop there. They didn’t. Not these types.
Finally, to render the bill completely unfit for purpose, while everyone is crying for the independence of governance bodies like the ACB; the bill – hacked beyond recognition – wasnow gutted of all safeguards intended to guarantee independence, oversight and redress mechanisms.
To cut a long story short, this emasculated ATI Bill – which after the surgery ought to be renamed Barrier to Information Bill, is what the Executive has gazetted, to be debated upon by parliament.
The free media, justifiably, wants none of this nonsense.
I did promise to try and bring us all on the same page, I believe I have done just done.
Now, let me resume the blow by blow account of the rumble in Mangochi.
Turning the celebration into a ring of sorts, Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) Malawi Chapterunleashed a flurry of blows:
“We once again appeal to the government to withdraw the Bill as gazetted from Parliament and replace it with the original draft as presented to the government by the stakeholders and thoroughly scrutinised and passed by officials from your ministry, lawyers from the Ministry of Justice, a committee of principal secretaries as well as the Cabinet committee on legal affairs.”
The Minister of Information, Communications Technology and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati, retaliated with a body punch:
“We have been talking about this ATI for many years now. At least, currently, there is progress. Now the media want us to take the Bill out of Parliament and start consultations all over again. Do not complain if the Act delays in passing up to 2024.”
End of round one, honours about even.
Thom Khanje then tagged in Mbumba Banda, the Nation Publications Limited (NPL) CEO and chair of the Media Owners Association. Madame Mbumba, in no time, had the Minister on the ropeswith a dazzling combination!
“For some reason, this law [ATI] makes politicians very uncomfortable. This is something I have always failed to understand, because if our leaders really understood and appreciated that they hold their positions on behalf and on the sustained trust of all Malawians, there should be no qualms with making necessary information available to the same masses they purport to serve.”
Reeling from the barrage, and now visibly pissed off,Madame Kaliati released a low blow:
“As government, we are not afraid of anything in enacting the ATI Bill into law. However we also fail to understand why government agenda is not given prominence in the country’s media.”
The judges’ scorecards? You are the judges, tell us the score!
I couldgo on and on with this altercation, but I think I have made the point.
The fact is: with respect to having an ATI Bill that serves its intended purpose, we are getting nowhere.
And this begs the questions: what does the Executive find so daunting in the original draft? And who would be the real winner if the Executive played the ‘listening leadership card’ and heeded common sense?
To answer these questions, it is important to look at why the bill is a necessity and not an option, something indispensable not a luxury.
Knowledge, as everyone knows, is power, and transparency is the only remedy to the darkness under which corruption, cash-gate and abuse thrives.
As former US president Jimmy Carter noted, for any country to successfully fight corruption, access to information is critical. It gives citizens the muscle to exercise their rights and uphold the responsibilities and accountability of their leaders.
Bona fide Access to information laws allow citizens to understand the basis of policies on which the government makes decisions relating to health, education, housing and infrastructure projects.
If armed with such knowledge, Malawians can start effecting the change that would allow them to improve their living standards and better their lives.
Globally, really caring governments and civil society agree that access to information is the key to fighting corruption and enhancing the public’s capacity to exercise their rights.
Coming back home, all the above – if we had the ATI in the formbefore the “surgery” – would have made Pres. Peter Mutharika’s job much easier.
First, public participation, be it in paying taxes or curbing wastage, would reduce pressure on our meagre Budget.
To be proactive tax-payers, people do not only require patriotism, no. An un-informed patriot is as bad as a badly programmed robot and we see too many of these around.
A well informed patriot on the other hand, can be depended upon to critically evaluate issues better than some self-styled “Analyst”, can talk sense and can contribute meaningfully, knowing as s/he would, the implications of less than ideal contributions.
In short, all these advantages of a genuine ATI Bill resonate well with Pres. Mutharika’s recent calls for patriotism and integrity.
He stands to win, and to win big from an ATI Bill that does not create unnecessary obstructions for citizensto serve as agents, champions and patriots of integrity.
In case more reasons are needed for adopting the bill in its original form, it is common knowledge that the ACB, Malawi Police and the Intelligence services are failing to do their job with respect to fighting corruption and crime.
Imagine that the fifteen million plus of us were empowered with information on:
- a) How our money is allocated to ministries and departments,
- b) How well it is managed,
- c) Howbadly it is mismanaged and squandered, and
- d) Moreimportantly, who the Lucifers of abuse and wastefulness are,
Wouldcorruption still thrive?
Would anyone dare to steal with the fifteen million plus of us closely following developments?
If the answer is no, then I wonderif at all President Mutharika means what he says when he says he iscommitted to fighting corruption.
I mean, if Pres Peter Mushaira really, wants you and meto be diligent, patriotic men and women of integrity, why is he so keen on denying us the means? Why?
In the unlikely event that His Excellency President Mutharika will chance upon this write up, since he declaredhe will not read Malawian newspapers anymore, and should he read up to this point, I have a direct question for him:
“Mr President, which army general ever sent soldiers to war without the necessary armour, ammunition andIntel i.e. all there is to know about the enemy they are supposed to fight?”
If the answer is none, then give us the arsenal with which to take corruption head-on; and no arsenal comes better than access to the information we need.
And to Madame Kaliati, the media is not asking the Executive for further “consultations”, no. We have had these consultations. If anyone is in dire need of napping opportunities, they should look elsewhere.
What weare demanding is thatyoushouldbring the original bill to parliament.Is this asking for too much? And why would bringing back our bill drag till2024?