On 6th August 2016 one of Malawi’s two dailies, The Nation newspaper reported that Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs had started an exercise that would result in all public servants taking oath of secrecy in all government Ministries, Departments and Agencies. The Justice Ministry did not speak to the media but the then Minister of Information and Civic Education, Patricia Kaliati confirmed of the development to the newspaper, telling the newspaper that Malawi government was trying to “bring about sanity and dignity to the civil service.”

It is not a public knowledge whether this has yet been effected but Kaliati then emphasised that this was a “normal” exercise, which indicates the eagerness of the government to see this being put into operation. Kaliati argued that this was a routine thing as “every officer when taking office takes an oath of secrecy.” Even ministers, added Kaliati, “also take the oath of service and allegiance and that is normal.”

The motive here is to criminalise whistle-blowing, while at the same time ensuring that spokespersons and public relations officers whose job is to airbrush and sanitise information is the first and last call for journalists, civil society organisations, academics and members of the public looking for government held information. Kaliati sought to defend this by questioning why would anyone want to get information from a driver or a Principal Secretary when the Information Minister is a government’s spokesperson.

Is Malawi really committed to providing access to information?

What Kaliati said seven months ago is more relevant today with the enactment of Access of Information (ATI) Bill into law. That ATI is now guaranteed is a big deal for Malawi. No doubt about it. And all the people and institutions that have doggedly fought for it over the years must be congratulated. But to understand what this actually means in practice it is important to look at it from historical perspective.

American dissident, the late Howard Zinn argued: “if you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up.” As Malawians and those concerned are celebrating the enactment of ATI into law, Kaliati’s perspective makes you wonder: is the government really committed to provide access to information, or the enactment of ATI into low is a mere window dresser, just another piece of “good” public relations?

These are pertinent questions, especially given the fact that Kaliati emphasised that the oath of secrecy by public officials would remain intact even when the ATI bill became law – perhaps unconstitutional given that the republican constitution is the supreme law of the land but what Kaliati said shows the stance of the government insofar as government’s commitment to provide public’s access to information is concerned.

Kaliati said: “only responsible persons would have authority to release information to members of the public or media and not anybody else.” Of course there has to be a formal channel of accessing information and I know the ATI law provides for this but these “responsible persons” are surely not through government spokespersons and public relations officers.

What now?

Malawi journalism needs to adjust according to the changing times. The question of news sourcing is hardly discussed. Yet, it is crucial for journalism. Emily Bell, C.W. Anderson and Clay Sirky argued that journalism that really matters “exposes corruption, draws attention to injustice, hold politicians and business accountable for their promises and duties. It informs citizens and consumers, helps organise public opinion, explains complex issues and clarifies essential disagreements. Journalism plays an irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economics.”

For this to happen journalists have to go beyond the usual “he said, she said” reporting, which heavily relies on formal sources of information such as spokesperson and public relations officers. In Malawi journalists and public relations officers comfortably call each other as “colleagues”. Perhaps this is because the vast majority of spokespersons and public relations officers in Malawi started out in journalism before joining public relations where remuneration and conditions of service are considerably better.

Yet, journalists and public relations officers are not colleagues. The relationship between these is similar to that of a cat and mouse, whereby the job of the cat is keep the mouse out the house – the job of public relation officers and spokespersons is manage the kind of information that journalists can and cannot get from their institutions. Now that ATI is law, it should be easier for journalists to get information – bypassing gatekeepers. Yet this can only happen if journalists appreciate the cat and mouse relationship between them and public relations people.

We must appreciate that even with access to information granted, whistle-blowing remain very important for accountability and transparency. Journalists and those seeking public information still need whistle-blowers. You can only demand information if you know what is going on – you need tips from those with inside information. Whistle-blowers are paramount, good journalism thrive on this – not just access to information. This means that contrary to what Malawi government thinks, journalists must speak to drivers, Principal Secretaries and other civil servant – and whistle-blowing has to be encouraged and whistle-blowers legally protected if Malawi government is indeed committed to transparency and accountability.