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In Support of Donors’ Stand on Malawi's Access to Information Bill
When the Malawi Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) kick-started the campaign for the enactment of the Access to Information Bill sometime around 2004, it appeared then that this was just one of the ploys and tactics to try to liberalize the media terrain in the country so that journalists and their employers can operate more freely and, ultimately, act more irresponsibly as it were. After all, media pluralism and liberalism are some of the quintessential tenets upon which MISA thrives as a media organization.
The seemingly thin line between what MISA stands for on one hand, and the fundamental rationale behind the campaign on the other hand, created a lot of mystification and misperception in the public domain. Somehow, MISA had move quickly to demystify the unsubstantiated myths associated with the campaign.
And how would that be achieved? Here is how; bring in as many allies and different stakeholders as possible into this genuinely good cause; win as many voices of reason as possible from civil society organisations, from faith community, from the streets, from the school; and even from the donor community. All singing one song. Pass the Access to Information Bill Now!
As of today, twelve years after the first draft, the Bill – or shall I say Bills? – has now been discussed at different forums by a diverse of stakeholders during all the government regimes of United Democratic Front (UDF), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Peoples Party (PP), and now DPP again. Television and radio programmes have been aired on both state and private broadcasters. Countless number of consultative workshops have been held to enable different players critique the Bill, including Members of Parliament, principal secretaries and other strategic government representatives. Several taskforce committees have been created along the journey to stir the campaign forward. And following a series of consultations, the Bill itself has gone through various stages of drafting and re-drafting.
In all these consultations, the message has been consistent throughout. The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi treats access to information as a human rights issue that hinges on freedom of expression. Without putting in place a specific and more comprehensive piece of legislation that supports the clause in the constitution related to the right to information, our democratic process would therefore be incomplete. So it is essentially not about citizens having the “privilege” to access public information. Rather, it is about the citizenry exercising their “right” to do so.
The Bill, if and when enacted, would help to promote transparency and accountability in government and public institutions. The public's right, for example, to access government records would become an important component of ensuring government's accountability to the people it serves. It would seek to promote openness in government and other public bodies. When all is said and done, transparency and accountability would breed good governance. What this implies is that the law would help reduce the propensity by public officers of holding or hiding information, as citizens would now be empowered to demand information under this law from them. Every citizen would be able to know the stand of government and how public resources are used. Some decisions and business transactions, which are secret in the current circumstances, would be easily known.
Now given Malawi’s recent unsavoury corruption history that has resulted in donors like the European Union (EU), the World Bank, and the United Kingdom withdrawing 40 percent of the budgetary support, the news as reported by The Daily Times of December 8, 2015 that the EU and the World Bank will suspend about US$80 million (K48 billion) in aid if the country will not have enacted the Access to Information Bill by December 31, 2015.should not be astounding.
We all know how the Cashgate put Malawi on the world map for wrong reasons. Besides being responsible for the untimely deaths of thousands of patients in hospitals, Cashgate led to the loss last year of about $32 million from government coffers. And it is no longer a secret that Cashgate has been there for as long as the campaign for the enactment of the Information law has existed.
So what our traditional donors – call them our tragic allies in the Access to Information campaign! – have persistently demanded since the advent of Cashgate is one thing; Government must demonstrate unwavering commitment that it is putting in place tangible mechanisms not only to defeat Cashgate, per se, but also to promote transparency and accountability altogether. One such mechanism is the unconditional enactment of the Access to Information Bill that would empower the citizens to question suspicious dealings and protect whistle blowers, among other things. Unconditional, because the Bill itself already has undergone strenuous scrutiny by various players, including the different Governments themselves, leaving no room for more excuses, reservations and uncorroborated fears, particularly from politicians.
Trust me, If enacted, this law shall be a tool to fight corruption. And when corruption is conquered, it is not the donors that would benefit more from it. It is you and me; my son, your daughter; our grandmothers in the villages. It is a catalyst for national development. It is in our best interest. All of us.
The need for an access to information law should never be undermined again in this country, more especially by those who at one time appeared to sing our song in their political manifestos to woo our votes. I may not be a supporter for all the donor conditionalities inflicted on under-developed nations like Malawi, but on this one they have my full support. Kudos!