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Malawi public institutions not media friendly - MISA Malawi

A 2011 study by the Malawi Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Malawi) has yet again revealed that government ministries and departments are still not open and free to give out information and therefore not transparent and accountable to the citizenry.
Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) emerged the most media friendly government institution while Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment emerged the most secretive. This is almost a repeat of last year's study which showed that the Ministry of Agriculture emerged the most open and accessible government department while the Road Traffic Department was most secretive with information of all the ten public institution that were surveyed. This year, only two out of the seven sampled government departments and ministries responded to written requests for information.

"Going through websites for these government ministries and departments some had completely outdated information while others had partially updated information," said MISA-Malawi's Research and Media Monitoring officer Augustine Mulomole.

"To improve the situation, there is need for more advocacy efforts to sensitize public officers on the importance of giving public information to those that are seeking it," he said.

Access to public information


Two research projects undertaken by MISA Malawi in 2009 and 2010 support this assertion. The studies, which focused on the 'Level of Access to Public Information in Malawi', revealed that accessing information in the country remains a challenge despite Section 37 of the Constitution providing for the same.

In 2009 and 2010 MISA Malawi also conducted similar research projects, which culminated in giving out the Golden Key and Golden Padlock awards to the most open and secretive public institutions respectively.

Mulomole says it is unfortunate that the status-quo on the ground remain the same.

"For example, in 2009, only two out of six institutions responded to written requests for information by MISA Malawi, while in 2010, only three out of 10 government institutions responded," he said.

He said most public institutions either ignore or actually refuse to provide information upon request while none take a proactive approach in disseminating information by periodically giving out information even when it has not been asked for.

"A symbolic golden key award was given to MBS," said Mulomole in an interview with Bizcommunity. "A symbolic golden padlock award was given to the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment".

He said unlike last year where RTD (Road Traffic Department) refused to receive the golden padlock award, this year the ministry's deputy secretary, McCullum Sibande, received the award and promised to work on areas like introducing a newsletter, revamping their website and recruiting a public relations Officer.

At last year's event that was held in Lilongwe there was drama when a Golden Padlock Award, was about to be given to RTD as its director James Chirwa dashed off from the venue of the event in protest before returning minutes later to condemn the initiative.

"You cannot use a criteria imported from other countries to determine our stand on access to information because this is unjustified," he protested, "I am surprised we are being given a lock, meaning; we were very open and accessible and now you want us to stop."

This year, just like last year, Mulomole said the research adopted qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection.

"It sought to assess the level of public access to information held by government and public institutions," he explained.

Furthermore, taking after last year's method, the research looked at two levels or categories, which was to evaluate websites of government and public institutions, as well as handing to the institutions written reports and questionnaires requesting information from them.

"This method sought to establish the transparency and efficiency of government and public institutions in providing information to the public upon request," explained Mulomole.

Last year, the report noted an improvement from a 2009 study with three institutions responding to written requests in 2010 compared to none in 2009 although the response rate was still low at 30%.

The findings


The findings which have been printed in a booklet called "Government Secrecy in an Information age: 2011 report on the most open and secretive government institutions in Malawi" was part of what MISA launched under the Most Open and Secretive Public Institutions in Southern Africa for 2011, on 28 September 2011, which is the International Right to Know Day.

Mulomole who is also the researcher in the whole project starts by giving a media history of Malawi where media freedom and freedom of expression were alien to Malawi until the dawn of democracy in 1994 when Malawians voted for a multi-party system of government.

He said the dawn of multiparty politics ushered in one of the best liberal constitutions in the world with a Bill of Rights and clear guarantees on freedom of expression, the press as well as access to information, under Sections 35, 36 and 37 respectively.

Mulomole writes in the booklet, "Ideally, access to information includes the right to receive information held by public structures, also called the Right to Know, as well as the duty of such structures to make information accessible. This is, however, not the case in Malawi."

He observed that public institutions rarely value the public's right to know and they are not ready to make information accessible.

"Further, despite the constitutional provision, Malawi has no law on Access to Information (ATI) to compel public officials to provide people with crucial information to make informed decisions. The absence of such a law basically means that citizens cannot easily access information as provided for in the constitution," says Mulomole.

MISA Malawi addresses the problem


But to address this problem, MISA Malawi is campaigning for legislation on access to information and, in 2011, repeated the study on the 'Level of access to information in Public Institutions in Malawi,' as one way of strengthening our campaign on ATI with evidence based data. This report provides the rationale and findings of this third study.

The seven public institutions that were sampled include the Lilongwe City Council, Mzuzu City Council, Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS), Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Southern Region Water Board.

Mulomole explained that the aim of the study was to assess the level of transparency in government and public Institutions against international standards and principals on Access to Information. It was also aimed at influencing the adoption of practices, laws and a culture that promotes transparency and openness in government and public institutions and informing advocacy and interventions by MISA Malawi and civil societies across the country.

Perhaps the other major reason was to encourage citizens to exercise their fundamental right to access information generated, held and under the control of Government Institutions necessary for accessing other social economic rights.

Ratings


The research done in two categories, first checked the public institutions' websites and those that scored zero to four are the ones with no or poorly organised websites while five to six represents a fairly organised website; and 7 - 10 represents a well organised website containing most or all relevant information that is of interest to the public.

Under the second category physical requests were made to ask the institutions something related to their service those that showed total secrecy or denied access scored between zero and four in the evaluation while fair openness scored between five and six; but those that showed openness scored between 7 - 10.

"In addition, a response from the institution with requested information within the legal frame work of 30 working days constitutes openness whilst failure to respond within this legal period constitutes denial," explains Mulomole.

The research established that all of the seven government ministries and departments that were selected for study had websites; except for Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment which had a link hosted by the Government of Malawi website.

Of the seven websites that were visited, three of Malawi Bureau of Standards; Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were partially updated while four of Lilongwe City Council; Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment; Mzuzu City Council and Southern Region Water Board were out-dated.

Mulomole says it is surprising to note that the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment did not have any information on how government was dealing with problems of fuel shortage as well as persistent power blackouts in the country.

Ministry should inform citizens


"The ministry should have taken the responsibility to inform the citizenry; especially motorists as well as consumers on how supplies of fuel as well as load shedding schedules were being conducted," he said.

Following recent mass demonstrations that were orchestrated by fuel shortage and intermittent power supplies, Mulomole says the ministry should have taken this development as a wakeup call and ensure that citizens are fed constantly with information.

All the seven government ministries and departments that were orally requested by MISA Malawi to provide information in turn demanded for a questionnaire, but as expected, out of the seven only two, MBS and Southern Region Water Board responded.

In spite of acknowledging receipt of written requests for information, five government Departments and institutions did not respond to MISA Malawi's requests. MBS responded through email nine days after the request for information was made.

"They later sent the same response through postal mail 13 days from the day the information was requested," said Mulomole.

As the researcher in the whole project, Mulomole suggests that the methodology used in the research should be strengthened by including interviews with media houses and journalists to get their views on the level of openness of the institutions sampled.

"Views from members of the public and other organisations on which ministries or departments they consider more secretive or transparent than others, would also be critical," said Mulomole who added that prospects of extending the research to include the private sector once in a while must also be explored.

About Gregory Gondwe

Gregory Gondwe is a Malawian journalist who started writing in 1993. He is also a media consultant assisting several international journalists pursuing assignments in Malawi. He holds a Diploma and an Intermediate Certificate in Journalism among other media-related certificates. He can be contacted on moc.liamg@ewdnogyrogerg. Follow him on Twitter at @Kalipochi.
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