Parliamentary Committee on Media and Communication chairperson Susan Dossi has said no public institution has ever submitted a compliance report on the Access to Information (ATI) since 2020 when the Act was operationalised, as required by the law.
Section 17 of the ATI Act states that public institutions should submit compliance reports to the Minister of Information and Digitilisation three months after every financial year and that the minister is supposed to bring the report to Parliament through the committee three months later.
But in an interview in Lilongwe on Thursday, on the sidelines of the launch of the ATI Handbook for Media Practitioners in Malawi, Dossi said the committee has never received such a report.
She said: “We have been waiting for compliance reports since 2020 as per requirement in the law, but we have never received any. It is just recently when we heard that the Central Medical Stores Trust (CMST) has submitted its report to the minister, but we have not seen it.”
Dossi added that the implementation of the Act has so far been poor, saying the committee will be meeting stakeholders to understand their challenges and map the way forward.
Reacting to the development, Media Council of Malawi (MCM) board chairperson Wisdom Chimgwede described the behaviour of the non-compliant public institutions as retrogressive.
“Why should they not submit reports when the law is there and it is clear that they are required to submit reports? We cannot be lobbying for laws and when they are in place we begin defying them. It doesn’t work like that,” he said.
Chimgwede said the newly launched
handbook will act as a guiding tool for media practitioners on how to demand information from public officers without portraying themselves as being above the law.
“The other challenge, which we must acknowledge, is that some media practitioners do not understand the ATI, so how do they inform the public when they are blank? This handbook should be used fully so that we open ourselves up,” he said.
In her remarks, Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) executive secretary Habiba Osman said the handbook has come at the right time when the country is heading towards the tripartite elections in 2025.
“It is important to have this handbook because it will not only benefit media practitioners, but the whole populace because, at the end of the day, the handbook will help the media practitioners to enhance checks and balances,” she said.
Osman said access to information is a human right that has to be upheld, especially
by public institutions whose mandate is to serve the public, and the public is entitled to follow up on those services.
United States (US) Embassy public affairs officer Namita Biggins said the Embassy will continue supporting the implementation of the ATI to ensure necessary disclosures of public information for the public benefit.
The US Embassy supported the lobbying of the ATI to be tabled in Parliament and after it was passed in 2017, the Embassy helped in lobbying for its operationalisation, which happened in 2020.