Malawians will have to wait a little longer before the right to access information is fully entrenched due to technical processes which are yet to be carried out, including development of guidelines as recommended in the Access to Information (ATI) Act.
Addressing a joint press conference in Lilongwe yesterday, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology Nicholas Dausi and chairperson of the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Justin Dzonzi said commitment remained high to ensure the ATI Act becomes operational.
The law states that every government ministry, department and agency (MDA) must have information officers.
A steering committee has since been established to carry out a mapping exercise of the MDAs to ensure they have information officers in place and if not, these should be appointed and oriented on their roles.
Dausi said apart from appointment of information officers and development of guidelines on the Act, there is need for capacity building and putting in place infrastructure as well as developing regulations on the implementation of the new law.
“This process is being led by a steering committee which has met three times so far to develop terms of reference and a draft roadmap, among others. Once the roadmap is complete, we will share with the nation key dates and key events towards operationalisation of the Act,” Dausi said.
On his part, Dzonzi stressed the importance of ensuring that all information holders have information officers as well as guidelines for citizens on how to access information and for providers of information on how to provide information.
“We also need to put in place guidelines on fees which would be attached in cases where a citizen is asking for bulky information such as photocopying a court file. It will be the duty of the steering committee to put all this in place,” he said.
Dzonzi added that the law expected MHRC to report to Parliament annually on how the ATI Act is being implemented which requires capturing details on information that has been sought, information provided as well as any information denied to citizens.
“We need a platform that can capture such information, responses to requests for information for these interactions to be reported to Parliament. If not careful, we may limit the right to information for Malawians,” he said.
However, Dzonzi committed to completing these processes by ‘maybe December’ but using a phased approached to avoid disturbing the current process of accessing information from the government.
MHRC commissioner Reverend Patrick Semphere said the major two challenges of the ATI Act implementation were managing the expectations of Malawians since the Act was assented to earlier last year as well reconciliating the local realities with other jurisdictions which had in place similar laws.
The composition of the steering committee includes officials from the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology such as Principal Secretary Justin Saidi and Chief Director for e-Government Nwazi Mnthambala, MHRC commissioners and officials from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs such as Chief State Advocate Pacharo Kayira.
President Peter Mutharika in February assented into law the eagerly awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill and Financial Crimes Bill.
Civil rights advocates hailed the signing of the Bill as a landmark achievement for the country in its quest to increase transparency and accountability.
ATI is expected to enhance protection of State resources by empowering the public and the media in particular to be able to legally force government officials and institutions to release information deemed of public interest.
However, the fight for its passing into law dates back many administrations and despite being passed by Parliament, an opposition drafted Bill faced stiffer challenges to receive support from Mutharika who loathed aspects of the Bill.