…calls for enactment of the ATI Bill arise
Last year when President Peter Mutharika’s cloudy whereabouts raised fears about his health status, arguments were made that government needed to learn on how to manage its communication system.
The president had extended his stay in the United States of America following the United Nations General Assembly. His absence was shrouded in secrecy, prompting rumours he was hospitalized while other people claimed he had died.
Government kept saying Mutharika was in robust health and went to the extent of warning people talking about the president’s health that they would be arrested.
At this time, there was very little information about where the President was. The State House only kept saying ‘He will be back soon’.
It had however taken a number of weeks until he returned but he failed to brief the media until after some days. At the briefing Mutharika had actually said he took the blame for the lack of information on his whereabouts before he attacked the media for what he said was ‘hateful reporting.’
Such unscrupulous dealings have seen the media look to be misleading when actually the flow of information is distorted up within structures in the government and ministries.
The media have times without number made calls for the Access to Information Bill (ATI) to be taken to Parliament for approval. The longstanding battle for the Bill was finally won on Wednesday, December 14, 2016 when the lawmakers passed it.
“The passing of the bill is a huge step in the 12-year long process in which various stakeholders, led by MISA Malawi, campaigned for legislation on access to information. We commend Parliament for excellently and successfully doing its part of the process. In particular, we hail Members of Parliament for adopting recommendations made by the parliamentary committees on Media and Communications and Legal Affairs when they were entrusted with the responsibility of reviewing the draft bill as gazetted by the government in February this year,” a statement from the Malawi Chapter of Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) released after the bill was passed reads in part.
Two months down the line, President Peter Mutharika has not yet assented to the bill. His Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had actually placed in its manifesto that it will see to it that the bill is enacted once he is elected into office.
Now during a Parliamentary hearing on the Maize deal on Wednesday, George Chaponda actually said he was not aware of several things that happened under the ministry of agriculture.
He said he was not aware of the maize negotiations as well as some agreements Agriculture Development and Marketing Cooperation (Admarc) had with ZCF and Kaloswe. He also made claims that there was no communication between his Ministry and the Finance Ministry.
This has actually revealed how pathetic the flow of information is within and outside the government.
Some of the core contradictions in the submissions by Chaponda include not being told by Admarc of the deals with Kaloswe – a Zambian company that acted as a middleman in the deal as well as who actually set the maize price. He told the Agricultural Committee that it was ZCF who set the price. In a separate hearing however, ZCF said Admarc did.
He also said some decisions his Ministry made contradicted with Admarc’s due to the seriousness of the matter (Hunger). But Admarc’s dealings are supposed to be known by the Ministry.
The misinformation that surrounds Ministries and government institutions is a ‘call for worry’’ says Innocent Mphongolo a journalist with privately owned MIJ FM Radio.
He told Malawi24 in an interview on Wednesday that Government works for the people and therefore all their work needs to be known by the people they work for.
“Citizens need explanations because government uses taxpayers’ money hence a need for the taxpayer to know how their money is used,” he said.
He added that trends like these pose a serious threat on the media as well as the freedom of expression which everyone is subjected to.
“The media is falling to abuse by police who are using some archaic laws such as defamation, Official Secrets Acts and many other draconian laws which is forcing the media to be limited in giving out information,” Mphongolo added.
On why politicians have seemingly been standing against bills like the ATI, the journalist argued that politicians use its absence to hide their undertakings.
He said: “There are a number of areas where office bearers were doing things as if the business at hand was personal. This is for fear of being exposed. They are afraid if people will have access to information, a lot of will be exposed and this can lead to their arrest and their downfall. The ducking of the bill is a defence mechanism as opposed to a necessity,” he added.
Recent media reports have made claims that the ATI Bill has after two months since its passing in Parliament not gotten to Mutharika.
The question remains whether government is committed to being transparent as it claims; having a free and well fed media or whether it is one of the old songs everyone else has heard over the years.