Tight-lipped ST is no good to any administration

Treasury has always tried to be progressive when it comes to accessibility to the public as one way of ensuring that the government is operating transparently and is accountable to the taxpayer and donors.

Indeed, Treasury was one of the first government ministries to have a spokesperson. I remember how much I—a financial reporter at the time in the early 2000s alongside colleagues such as Aubrey Mchulu, Frank Phiri, Ayam Maeresa, Thomas Chafunya and Thom Khanje (Lord, where did all that cream go?)—we loved Patrick Zimpita. Zimpita understood the role the media plays in the promotion of good public finance and economic management. He understood why we always bothered him with phone calls and questionnaires.

In those days, there was no WhatsApp and Internet use was very limited in the newsroom. The good old fax machine, ground phones and face-to-face encounters were the means with which we cultivated, developed, managed and communicated with our news contacts and sources. Zimpita was always there.

When he moved from the Ministry of Finance to another ministry, Zimpita left a huge gap and for a long time it was difficult to get interviews at the fiscus as we had to rely on the Minister of Finance and Secretary to the Treasury (ST) who were not always available.

The gap that the absence of a media relations person left at the Ministry was evident for years.

Then Randson Mwadiwa—one of the longest serving STs—decided that the Ministry of Finance can do well with a professional communications person. I happened to have succeeded in the interviews and got recruited as communications specialist for the ministry and its local development financing arm, the Local Development Fund (LDF) around 2008.

I had a great working relationship with my ST. I would walk into his office without an appointment and get approvals for media responses there and then. He opened up Treasury to the media and, by extension, to the public.

He certainly had no problems releasing information, especially when such material would help bring meaningful policy debate. I remember two crises in which he showed that being forthright and putting information out there—the whole of it and not piecemeal—can be a good public relations strategy.

The first crisis was the vehement opposition to the sale of Air Malawi and the second was the controversial formula for calculating pensions. In both cases, Treasury won the public relations battle by being available with information that helped to shape the narrative that the status quo was not good for anyone.

When I left Treasury, there was another communications gap, but the good news was that the STs of that time were talking to the media. And when my friend Nations Msowoya was appointed Treasury spokesperson, things just got so much better that the Ministry of Finance was on a couple of times named the most open government department in Malawi.

Then Msowoya left to take up a more challenging task and in his place came Davies Sado who, while he could not fill the big shoes that Msowoya left, went out of his way to be helpful and provide information.

Then he too left, but then he was not missed much because the ST at the time, Ben Botolo, is one of the most progressive ministry CEOs in the whole public service.

Now I once worked with Botolo at Treasury—he was director of finance and administration then, so I might be biased. But I know that financial journalists and other reporters who regularly report on Treasury miss Ben Botolo. He picked calls from journalists and if he missed a call, he would return it. He articulated the fiscal policy of government to the media and was always there to explain and defend decisions that Treasury had made.

Botolo believed, and rightly so, that running away from journalists’ questions only makes your job harder, not better. And that is a lesson the current ST, Cliff Chiunda, may wish to pick up. Chiunda avoids the media like the plague, rarely responds to media queries and scarcely explains anything.

If he thinks that the press is a temporary irritation that will soon go away, then he has a long wait ahead of him. Journalists have a constitutional right and duty to demand answers from public officials on matters of public interest and as ST, Chiunda is duty bound to provide the answers. It is not even a favour, it is his job.

And if he abhors answering probing questions about the state of our public finances then the man is in the wrong job and might wish to request a transfer from the Chief Secretary.

Or if he still wants to stay despite this, then he should, at the very least, appoint a spokesperson for the Treasury to talk to the media.

But in the end, a buttoned-up ST who cannot defend or explain government’s economic policy and decisions in the media is not good for an administration, especially one panting under a barrage of criticisms over its handling of public finances. n

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