Malawi Groups Urge Defeat of Revised Access Legislation

25 February 2016

The Malawi Parliament should turn down an access to information bill recently approved by the Cabinet, according to four advocacy groups.

Among other things, they object to charging for information and making the law prospective only.

The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and the Centre for Development of People (Cedep) in a statement made available to Nyasa Times expressed their “disappointment” at the “undemocratic elements” in the bill, the newspaper reported. CHRR and Cedep executive directors Timothy Mtambo and Gift Trapence respectively, said changes to the draft bill resulted in a “missed opportunity for democracy.” The statement says, “The latest Bill only vindicates those of us who had long-held fears against President Prof. Peter Mutharika’s insistence to iron out ‘inconsistencies’ as well as ‘align the bill with other laws’ before tabling in parliament.”

Similarly, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Malawi) and the Media Council of Malawi (MCM) said in a joint statement, “We are also urging MPs to reject the current version of the Bill as isn’t in line with recommendations and general consensus from various stakeholders who participated in the 10-year period of its drafting.” The statement was signed by Thom Khanje and Professor Wiseman Chijere Chirwa Chairpersons for Misa-Malawi and MCM respectively.

The groups are objecting to the introduction of fees for Malawians to access information to be determined by a public or private body “limited to reasonable, standard charges for document duplication, translation or transcription where necessary,” according to Clause 18.

They also drew attention to the removal of a provision that information holders should disclose otherwise exempt information if its release would serve the public interest. According to the bill presented to cabinet before being revised, public interest information included miscarriage of justice, abuse of authority or negligence in the performance of an official on duty and unauthorized use of public funds or avoidance of wasteful expenditure of funds.

The groups also fault the bill for being written to apply only prospectively. The Maravi Post published a lengthy article by Jimmy Kainja suggesting that government won’t make the bill retroactive in order to protect audit reports that would expose corruption.

The government also has erred by removing the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) as the ATI oversight body. Appeals would go to the courts.

‘We are shocked that after years of consultations and redrafting, government has taken it upon itself to completely scrape off the establishment of an independent oversight body and has instead entrusted that responsibility with an individual government minister,” wrote MISA and MCM.

CHRR and Cedep said, “It is in view of this that CHRR and Cedep are calling upon all well-meaning parliamentarians to reject the gazetted version of the Bill once tabled in parliament till such highlighted concerns are addressed in line with the Constitution of Malawi, the supreme law of the land,” the statement says.

The Times quoted Minister of Information, Tourism and Civic Education Jappie Mhango defending the changes, saying the government wants to  “shorten the process and remove bottlenecks” and that the commission has no capacity to handle the oversight role.

President Mutharika and his Cabinet also removed Clause 6, which would have invalidated any other laws restricting the disclosure of information and stopped future parliaments from passing laws which infringed on the rights and obligations of the ATI law.

The bill was gazetted on Feb. 19 2016 and has since appeared on the Order Paper of Business for the ongoing Mid-year Budget review meeting of Parliament under notices as Bill No. 1 of 2016.

 

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