In 2016, Parliament passed the Access to Information law. Former president Peter Mutharika signed it in 2017. When Lazarus Chakwera became president in June 2020, he promised to implement the law quickly by publishing regulations on how to access public information.
After a long delay, the government has finally done so. Minister of Information Gospel Kazako made the announcement to journalists in the capital, Lilongwe. “The public is advised to go to any government office to ask for any information,” he said. “This is not only for journalists but for anyone who wishes to know anything from the government.”
But the minister knows full well that accessing information from government departments is not easy. This is especially so in the case of records that could show abuse of public funds, human-rights violations or misuse of office.
“We know that changing mindsets is difficult,” the minister said. “But the new government will do everything possible to work for the good of the people and not for the few.”
Still, recent examples show the difficult road ahead.
Two cases in point: First, I sought information about abandoned, Chinese-donated equipment at the Kamuzu Central Hospital and Mzuzu Central Hospital. Both the Health Ministry and the Chinese Embassy refused to provide any information.
Second, journalist Idrissa Nassah contacted the Department of Disaster Management Affairs seeking information on how the department had spent 6.2 billion Malawi-Kwacha ($ 8.2 million) Covid-19 funds. The department did not provide the information.
Denial of information is part of standard procedure in many Malawian government ministries. “Public servants might not be able to give out information even though the law is implemented, for fear of losing their jobs,” says journalist Watipaso Mzungu. “This has been happening for many years.”
On the plus side, the Malawi chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) believes the new administration will improve information access over time. “Publishing the regulations to guide the implementation of the Act is a step forward,” says MISA-Malawi chairperson Teleza Ndanga. “The media and the public can now access public information if they so wish.”
That remains to be seen. Many barriers remain even within the new law. It requires applicants to wait for 15 days for information and says that officials may reject a request. Such a rejection can be appealed, but that could take several months.
If an appeal is successful, the official withholding information could face up to three years in jail or fines of up to 3 million Malawi-Kwacha ($ 4,000). However, notes journalist Mzungu, “an appeal will require an applicant to prove that the rejection was intended to conceal something.” That requirement can keep a lot of government information under wraps for a long time.
Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.