'I just want to satisfy that curiosity...'

He was whisked away from his newsroom, bundled into a police van and detained for four years before being released without charge.

Years later, Levison Lifikiro still isn’t sure of his crime. Instead he lives with the pain of losing his job and family as a constant reminder of those wasted years.

But now the answers that Lifikiro has sought may finally be at hand—thanks to Malawi’s newly drafted Access to Information Bill.

“I would like to know the grounds for my arrest, who gave the orders and who the informers were.
I just want to satisfy that ,” he says.

Lifikiro was detained during the autocratic rule of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, in power for three decades. At the time, he was working as editor of the Daily Times, a paper controlled by the ruling Malawi Congress Party—later displaced by the United Democratic Front (UDF).

“Who is Levison Lifikiro? He will rot in prison,” Banda is reported to have said at a political rally after his arrest.

Malawi’s information minister, Patricia Kaliati, says her government welcomes the draft information Bill, as it is crucial for development.

“If people have access to information they can question government decisions, thereby checking corruption which is a drain on public resources,” she notes.

The chairperson of the parliamentary committee on media, Berson Lijenda, agrees.

“Take for example the issue of tenders. If one feels that he has not been treated fairly, he can ask for minutes on how the decision was reached,” she says.

The issue of corruption has been a hot button topic in Malawi of late, with President Bingu wa Mutharika leaving the UDF after accusing the party of undermining his fight against graft.

The national director of archives in Malawi, Paul Lihoma, believes his country’s information Bill will also improve the quality of record management once passed.

“People are able to hire chartered accountants to manage their finances. But look at the people who manage information in our institutions. They are lowly ranked and poorly trained,” he says.

Ayesha Kajee, a board member of the South African chapter of corruption watchdog Transparency International, said that there was a “global trend” towards putting the affairs of government under greater scrutiny.

“This is in response to growing civic pressure. Civil society is asserting its rights,” Kajee noted. “We want to know how our money is being spent; we want to know what government is doing… There is a growing sense of participation in government.”

Elsewhere in Africa, Ghana and Mauritius are looking into passing access to information laws—while in Zambia an information Bill was tabled in Parliament, but later blocked.

Mozambique is holding consultations on the eventual shape of its information law. Four years ago, South Africa passed a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) which is now being implemented.

Rural communities have used the act to follow up on budgetary allocations to their areas. The law has also helped maintain peace.

“There was a time when one community in Mpumalanga wanted to verify the rightful heir to its traditional throne.

The village elders had to come here to check records, and that was settled peacefully,” says PAIA compliance officer Petra Bouler.

South African National Defence Force spokesperson Pieter de Waal claims the law has also helped boost the image of the military. “We have just discovered that the more we give information, the less controversy we have both in public and within the force,” he says.

However, Kajee warned that simply putting legislation in place would not ensure that citizens started demanding more information from their governments.

“There is a need for a great deal more public education. In South Africa, the Human Rights Commission has taken up the challenge and produced a guide for citizens on how to use PAIA to uphold their constitutional rights,” she said.

Kajee noted further that access to information could necessitate a choice between the rights of the individual and those of corporations and governments: “We have to balance these rights, but the scales are moving in favour of the rights of Joe Citizen rather than the rights of government.”

For Levison Lifikiro, now editor of a UDF-owned newspaper, nothing less would do in his quest to make sense of the harm that was inflicted on him. He went into self-imposed exile in South Africa after being released from prison, returning at the dawn of multiparty democracy in Malawi, in 1994.

“Tell me, which woman would like to associate with a man who is a public ridicule,” he asks.

“The government even directed that an ex-political detainee like me was not supposed to be employed within Malawi.” - Sapa-IPS

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